It’s difficult to depict the hardships of the writing process in film (Barton Fink notwithstanding), so first-time director Danny Green gets points for even attempting to translate Bernard Malamud’s 1971 novel about two struggling novelists in pregentrified New York. In a desperate attempt to complete the book that’s haunted him for nearly a decade, Jewish writer Harry Lesser (McDermott) has holed himself up in his dilapidated Brooklyn tenement. His solitude is interrupted by the arrival of Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg), a militant African-American squatter trying to write about the ghetto experience. The two form a tenuous friendship, with Lesser giving writing advice and Spearmint introducing Lesser to his clique. Their relationship is threatened, though, when Spearmint begins to resent the more experienced writer’s input and Lesser falls for Spearmint’s white actress girlfriend (Byrne, in a truly captivating turn).
With a scraggly beard obscuring his good looks, McDermott is believable as the hermetic Lesser, but it’s Snoop who steals the show, eschewing his usual smoked-out casualness for a surprising intensity that suggests the flamboyant rapper might have a new career as a dramatic actor. The only problem, aside from some lagging scenes, is that the overt racial tension that gave Malamud’s novel its bite has been muted—making the film’s denouement, so tragically poetic in the book, seem abrupt and overly dramatic. Nonetheless, The Tenants still succeeds as an exploration of the single-minded creative type. (Opens Fri; AMC Empire 25.)—Dan Avery