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(2000) (Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis) (R)

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Comedy: Upon learning that his new next door neighbor is a former hit man, a mild-mannered dentist finds himself increasingly and unhappily involved in a lethal plot to retrieve ten million dollars.
Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky (MATTHEW PERRY) is a mild-mannered dentist living in suburban Montreal. Although he's not particularly happy about his failing practice - courtesy of his former father-in-law partner racking up a huge debt - or his failed marriage to Sophie (ROASANNA ARQUETTE), a spoiled French Canadian who'd like him dead, things could get worse. After all, a former hit man could move in next door.

That's exactly what happens when Oz goes over to greet his new neighbor only to quickly identify him as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski (BRUCE WILLIS), a hit man who testified against a dangerous Chicago crime family fronted by Janni Gogolak (KEVIN POLLAK). When Sophie gets wind of this, she commands that Oz travel to Chicago, inform the Gogolaks of Jimmy's whereabouts, and collect a finder's fee for their efforts.

Willing to do anything to get away from his obnoxious and demanding wife, Oz then travels to the windy city, but is intercepted by the hulking Frankie Figs (MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN), who then takes him to see Janni. There, Oz not only meets Jimmy's estranged wife, Cynthia (NATASHA HENSTRIDGE), but also learns of a former three-way deal between her, Janni and Jimmy where the survivors, or survivor, of the trio will collect ten million dollars.

Oz, who's actually grown to partially like Jimmy - and vice-versa - reluctantly returns to Canada knowing that Janni and Jimmy will try to kill each other and then Cynthia. The only problem is, Oz has fallen for Cynthia. As the various participants' plans are set into motion, Oz must contend with surprising revelations about Jill (AMANDA PEET), his dental receptionist, and agent Hanson (HARLAND WILLIAMS), a local cop, while worrying about what Janni and Jimmy, not to mention his wife, might have in store for him.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The whimsical and near black comedy, organized crime caper is revisited once again and gets the big star treatment in this week's release of "The Whole Nine Yards." The more humorous and irreverent side of mob-related films was an inevitable but somewhat welcomed result of the more serious and hardcore mafia films such as the "Godfather" trilogy and violence-heavy flicks such as "Scarface" that dominated the past several decades. Yet, that comical approach and the resultant films have been done so often now that they've become a bit too familiar and predictable to stand out like they once did.

In essence, this moderately enjoyable and successful effort is rather similar in its underlying premise as 1999's "Analyze This" and "Mickey Blue Eyes." In all three films, an innocent and often bumbling layman unwittingly gets involved with an initially benevolent, but seemingly explosive mob figure. From that point on, the protagonist must contend with the mobster's various plans and presumably face his wrath should he not completely participate.

As directed by Jonathan Lynn ("Trial and Error," "My Cousin Vinny") and written by Mitchell Kapner (his first produced script), the film is different enough from last year's genre entries, and offers enough amusing moments from its charismatic cast, to make it a worthy alternative, as well as a complementary addition, to those other films.

Here, the hit man, wonderfully underplayed by Bruce Willis ("The Sixth Sense," "Armageddon"), isn't the typical "Godfather" type thug, and the setting takes place - of all the odd locations for such a story - in Canada. While the latter doesn't really add anything to the proceedings, Willis' droll performance and double entendre-laced dialogue (where his comments could mean one or more things to the understandably nervous protagonist) provides for most of the film's laughs.

As such, the plot unfolds in a moderately amusing and interesting fashion, but doesn't quite come off as clever as the filmmakers probably envisioned or wished. While enough double crossing is present to keep the film from becoming too predictable, a bigger heaping of it probably would have resulted in a far better, wittier and more enjoyable experience.

For instance, I kept imagining and waiting for various characters to turn against those presumably on "their side" (perhaps even several times), and for a subplot -- dealing with the protagonist's wife trying to hire a hit man to "whack" him -- to be more closely intertwined with the main plot. What's present works, but it never quite feels like it attains or maintains its maximum momentum or fully realizes its potential.

For the most part, the performances are delivered in a winning fashion. Beyond Willis who obviously steals the show, Matthew Perry ("Three To Tango," TV's "Friends") is decent as the nervous and bumbling dentist who's suddenly in over his head, but - as in most of his other work - pretty much plays the same sort of character he always does. While that's not a horrible thing - unless you can't stand such characterizations - it would be nice to see Perry stretch his thespian wings a bit. Of course, that wouldn't have worked for this role, and he does give the character enough neurotic ticks and tendencies to keep him amusing.

Fresh off his now Oscar nominated performance in "The Green Mile," Michael Clarke Duncan (who also appeared in "Armageddon" with Willis) does a fine job in a comic turn, while Amanda Peet ("Body Shots," TV's "Jack and Jill") is refreshingly fun in a comical gender twist on the typical hit man story.

While Kevin Pollak ("Deterrence," the "Grumpy Old Men" films) and Natasha Henstridge ("Species," "Maximum Risk") do the best with what they've been given to work with as the chief mobster and the hit man's estranged wife respectively, Rosanna Arquette ("Desperately Seeking Susan," "Pulp Fiction") simply doesn't work as the protagonist's manipulative and vindictive wife (her French Canadian accent is irritating at best and embarrassedly distracting the rest of the time).

Although the film won't play to everyone's tastes - it's another of those mob comedies where violence and murder are portrayed in a droll and nonchalant fashion, when not used as a basis for intended comedy - and isn't as clever and funny as it could and should have been, it will probably play rather well to non-choosey audiences looking for a mostly lighthearted black comedy.

Decent and moderately entertaining mainly due to the winning performances from the charismatic cast, "The Whole Nine Yards" might not exactly deliver what the title promises, but at least gets more than halfway there. As such, we rate the film as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 12, 2000 / Posted February 18, 2000

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