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*The Whole Nine Yards (G)
Warner Bros. / Morgan Creek

Bruce Willis has starred in some real stinkers in recent years -- The Story of Us leaps to mind -- so I didn't have high hopes for his newest flick, The Whole Nine Yards, a comedy about a retired Mafia contract killer who moves into a quiet Montreal suburban neighborhood. However, low expectations can lead to nice surprises: The Whole Nine Yards, despite its tired title, turned out to be a refreshing and funny take on an often weary genre.

The movie begins with a fascinating close-up of toothpaste squeezing from a tube and a whirling electric toothbrush that seems to promise a quirky visual film, but those images are director Jonathan Lynn's sole directorial indulgences. Instead, he wisely opts to get out of the way of his script and actors and tell the story straight up.

The brush and paste belong to Nick "Oz" Ozransky (Matthew Perry), an affable American dentist married to Sophie, a French Canadian harridan (Patricia Arquette). Sophie's main occupation is torturing her husband and trying to cash in on his life insurance policy.

Lo and behold, who moves in next door but Tommy "The Tulip" Tudeski, a contract killer just released from five years in prison for killing 17 people. Tommy served the short five-year sentence for turning state's evidence against his employer, the Gogolack crime family. Now the family has a contract out on the Tulip's head and Sophie wants her husband to collect on the cash. If he won't kill Tommy himself, fine. He can go to Chicago and inform the mob about Tommy's whereabouts. If that gets Tommy mad enough to kill Oz, well, that would fit into her plans just perfectly.

That The Whole Nine Yards is so amusing and unexpected is a tribute to really good writing. Screenwriting newcomer Mitchell Kapner has loaded the film with the kind of funny throwaway lines that you want to remember and repeat to your friends, the way you repeated Monty Python in the junior high school cafeteria. Kapner has also studied his hard-boiled detective and Mafia genre films and pulled in enough elements from those flicks to provoke just a shiver of recognition without going over the top into parody. For example, Tommy's estranged wife (played by the stunning, if somewhat dull, Natasha Henstridge) is a perfect reprise of the 40s' gangster's moll, complete with tight skirts, high heels and tough-girl quips. Writer Kapner rarely steps wrong except, perhaps, in stooping to use a speech impediment as the running gag for the Mafia family head. That's a dud.

The humor of the film also gets a lift from some decent physical comedy on the part of Matthew Perry. While Perry is no Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, his pratfalls are not at all bad. After too many years of weird, plastic, over-the-top Jim Carrey-ish physical comedy, a few good old-fashioned falling-over-sofas-and-banging-into-walls gags are quite refreshing.

With all this good fun happening on the screen, I hesitate to voice my major criticism of the film lest I sound like a prude. Still, here it is: While the humor is very clever and tongue-in-cheek, the violence of the film is not. One character after another gets shot with big handguns and while most of those who wind up dead are bad guys, some are not. All the matter-of-fact killing in the midst of the comedy was a little creepy, and as much as I was laughing at the clever script, I left the theater discomfited by the juxtaposition of good comedy with real violence. The happy, amoral Hollywood-ness of the film really did a number on my sense of perspective and made me fear for my fellow citizens.

Squeamishness, and a deep wonder at our warped American psyche aside, however, The Whole Nine Yards is a lightweight, clever comedy, and writer Kapner will be one to watch.

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