[Screen It]

(2001) (Matt Dillon, Liv Tyler) (R)

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Black Comedy: Three men recount their various encounters and relationships with a femme fatale who changed their lives.
Randy (MATT DILLON) is an average down on his luck bartender whose life has been turned so upside down that he's hired Mr. Burmeister (MICHAEL DOUGLAS), a bingo-playing hit man to take care of the person who's driven him to this point. As Randy recounts his tale to Burmeister, we see him rescue a beautiful woman, Jewel (LIV TYLER), from Utah (ANDREW SILVERSTEIN), a thug.

Jewel puts the moves on Randy right away, quickly snaring him into her manipulative web, particularly when she learns that he has his own house, something she's always dreamed off. After a quick bout of sex, Randy learns that Jewel and Utah have set him up to be robbed. Jewel, however, has second thoughts and ends up shooting and killing Utah, but convinces Randy to take the rap.

Meanwhile, a St. Louis cop, Detective Charlie Dehling (JOHN GOODMAN), wishes to make a confession to his priest, Father Jimmy (RICHARD JENKINS), about a woman who's thrown his life off kilter. She, of course, is Jewel, who he meets while investigating Utah's murder. He's immediately enamored with her, and suddenly finds himself believing that it's his mission in life to protect and then be with her.

He's not the only one as Carl (PAUL REISER), a lawyer and Randy's cousin, confides to his shrink, Dr. Naomi Green (REBA McENTIRE), that he too is in love with Jewel despite being married with kids. As the various men recount their involvement with the femme fatale, we see the effect that Jewel has on them, as well as their perspectives regarding their relationships with her.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's been said that Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships and that her beauty was the cause of the Trojan War. Ever since then, many women have also used their looks and feminine wiles to get what they want, particularly when that involves men. Contrary to what they'll tell you, some men are shallow beings who don't look beyond the superficial.

As a result, many such men can be swayed and/or fall prey to a femme fatale's smile, figure, or sexy demeanor. Of course, those same men will either deny or be oblivious to such manipulation, and will likely come up with a vastly different viewpoint - than would others -- regarding themselves, the woman, and whatever encounter or relationship they had or have.

The late screenwriter Stan Seidel ("The Marshall Plan," "Give Us a Kiss") opted to use that universal truth and observation as the basis for his dark comedy script, "One Night at McCool's." A tale of one such manipulative woman and the three saps she controls, the film is an often amusing and generally entertaining romp - as long as you enjoy and don't mind this sort of black comedy - that might not be the best such film ever made, but it's clearly far from being the worst.

As helmed by first time director Harald Zwart (a commercial and music video director), the three interrelated stories simultaneously unfold at a hectic pace that never wavers in its comedic dash from start to finish. The three dupes - played by Matt Dillon ("There's Something About Mary," "Wild Things"), Paul Reiser ("Aliens," TV's "Mad About You") and John Goodman ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "Coyote Ugly") - each recount/confess their story that involves the manipulating temptress who's played with a combination of innocence and sin by Liv Tyler ("Dr. T & the Women," "That Thing You Do!").

Accordingly, each one's tale - that's told to various others who listen in humor, disbelief or envy - is radically different from the others, resulting in some amusing and occasionally hilarious bits of comedy and observational humor. Zwart attempts to milk just that for everything it's worth as he repeatedly jumps from story to story and past to present and back again -- like a jackrabbit on steroids - as the story unfolds.

The results, however, while generally entertaining for a picture of this genre, don't quite jell into a fabulous, cohesive whole, resulting in yet another movie that falls into the "could've been great" trap. Although we're supposed to be intrigued by the disparate stories and trying to figure out which of the characters - if any - is telling the truth, the effect doesn't work as well as it should.

While we're somewhat intrigued about how the tangled plot of characters and storylines will ultimately play out - simple from their interwoven state - the film doesn't quite mange to take such material to the next level to which it obviously aspires. The same holds true for the heavily structured plot where the various elements start to play off one another and eventually all come together for the big finale. While what's present works and is generally amusing - at least to some degree - it doesn't quite manage to reach the heights of comedic brilliance, something that may have occurred had a more seasoned comedy director been at the helm and fine-tuned the effort.

Some of the problem could stem from the fact that the "present day" confession scenes aren't particularly inspired or as funny as the flashbacks to the tales they tell, some of which involve Andrew Silverstein, a.k.a. Andrew Dice Clay ("The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," "Pretty in Pink") in a funny dual role. The whole bit about a priest - played by Richard Jenkins ("Me, Myself & Irene," "What Planet Are You From?") - getting excited by the steamy story told to him by Goodman's detective character is an old and tired joke that's worn out it welcome.

The psychiatry segments that feature Paul Reiser as a smarmy lawyer and singer turned occasional actress Reba McEntire ("Tremors," "The Little Rascals") as his shrink are unfortunately flat. Only the bits where Matt Dillon recounts his tale to a bingo playing hit man, played with devilish glee by Michael Douglas ("Traffic," "Wonder Boys"), are worthwhile, with some of that coming from the purposefully bad hairdo/wig his character dons.

The film's weakest link may be its most important character and that's the femme fatale played by Liv Tyler. Although the actress isn't bad by any means, and appropriately vamps it up when necessary, I never quite found her to be so drop dead gorgeous, alluring or dangerously sexy to cause the men to act the way they did.

While I'm not sure who would have been the perfect temptress to play the combination of sex, manipulation and innocence (although someone like Elizabeth Hurley comes to mind after her similar role in "Bedazzled"), the result here isn't quite as believable as it needs to be for the story to work as well as it should.

That's particularly true when Zwart force-feeds the effect to the viewer through music, lighting effects and camera trickery. Although all of that's supposed to be part of the joke - in that it represents the exaggerated way in which the men view Jewel - it feels a bit too much like a novice director making sure he's adequately nailing down and driving home the point.

In the end, one is likely to give the film an A for effort as well as not being too unsavory or in bad taste as far as the black comedy material is concerned. Yet, its execution, despite the effort and calculated setup, isn't quite as polished or hilarious as intended and one might expect or hope. As a result, the moderately entertaining "One Night at McCool's" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 24, 2001 / Posted April 27, 2001

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