[Screen It]

(2002) (Christian Slater, Tim Allen) (R)

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Comedy: After escaping from prison and hoping to dig up some long buried, stolen diamonds, a convict assumes a dead man's identity only to learn that people still want him dead.
Trevor Finch (CHRISTIAN SLATER) is a convict who's escaped from prison only to find himself at the wrong end of a gun held by professional hitman Critical Jim (TIM ALLEN). That movie buff believes Trevor to be Cletis Tout, a seedy and opportunistic photojournalist who's public enemy number one to Mafioso Rowdy Virago (JOSEPH SCOREN). He's the heir apparent to a local mob operation but Tout captured his sexually lethal encounter with a hooker and is now trying to blackmail him.

Trevor states he's not Clout, but has an interesting story to tell nevertheless, a point that intrigues Jim due to its cinematic potential. Trevor then goes on to tell his tale about escaping from prison with Micah (RICHARD DREYFUSS), a former magician who decades ago pulled off a jewelry heist and then buried the stolen loot.

Now free, but needing new identities, Trevor contacts coroner Dr. Savian (BILLY CONNOLLY) to get them some, which is how he ends up posing as Trout, unaware of his new connection with the mob. The two then meet up with Micah's adult daughter, Tess Donnelly (PORTIA DE ROSSI) and prepare to unearth the hot diamonds.

After Trevor has a run-in with Tout's cross-dressing neighbor Ginger Markum (RUPAUL) and word gets out that Tout is apparently still alive, Rowdy orders mob hitmen Nimble (LOUIS DI BIANCO) and Fife (TONY NAPPO) to kill him, but they bungle that.

Finch and Tess - who don't get along - then set out to find the diamonds, only to discover an unexpected complication. With police detectives Tripp (PETER MacNEILL), Delaney (BILL MacDONALD), Rafferty (ELIAS ZAROU) and Horst (RICHARD CHEVOLLEAU) working the case and Critical Jim hired to kill him, Trevor continues telling his story about trying to get the diamonds all while hoping that the mesmerized hitman won't kill him.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Any time a character in a movie points out faults in others pictures and/or repeatedly makes references to classic films and movie legends, several things come to mind for viewers and especially critics. One is that those responsible for such dialogue are trying to be hip in an insider sort of way where we're supposed to groove on how smart, clever or at least studied in matters of film the script is.

The other is that the film in question had better not contain any of those or other faults, and that it should be as good as or better than those that are named lest it come off on the unfavorable side of comparisons and/or as unwise cinematic bravado.

Of course, if the culturally witty film turns out to be good, such worries instantly become moot. Unfortunately, and more often than not, most such films inevitably fall victim to their own "Look at me" posturing.

Such is the case with writer/director Chris Ver Weil first foray into feature filmmaking, "Who is Cletis Tout?" Beyond being one of the more awkwardly titled films to be released this year, the picture simply doesn't work that well, particularly considering the above.

Some films are naturally hip due to their unique story and/or filmmaking and storytelling techniques. Others try to force that aura and end up working too hard trying to emulate and/or force that effect. Unlike the similarly fashioned and far superior "Get Shorty," this effort definitely falls into the latter category.

Part of that's because it obviously tries so hard to be culturally hip that the strain shows. While one can appreciate the effort that Ver Weil (who previous wrote and directed some little seen, low-budget efforts) and his team are striving to achieve, we can too easily see the man behind the curtain pulling all of the levers, turning all of the knobs, and pushing all of the buttons trying to make it all work.

The bigger problem - that obviously stems from the first - is that the material just doesn't work that well, as least as executed. Going for the same sort of hip comedy and violence mixture that worked so well in Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 picture and some of Quentin Tarantino's films, the picture earns some marks for the effort.

Alas, its tale of a forger, a movie-loving hitman, a magician, his daughter, the title character and a bunch of cop and mob figures simply doesn't gel that well. The fault again lies in the fact that you can see the mechanical workings of the script when they should be hidden from sight. Then there's the fact that material isn't as funny, engaging or hip as it believes itself to be and wants viewers to think it is.

One of those efforts where the narrative storyline jumps around and folds back upon itself - much like Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" but without the fun twists or irony of that masterful work - most of this film is told in flashback. Beyond that being a point that Tim Allen's film buff hitman points out in his critique of films (thus drawing our attention to it), the jumping back and forth does nothing for the film.

That is, other than disrupting what little momentum it had and creating even more of an episodic feel to the proceedings. Ver Weil also oddly but apparently purposefully recycles film clichés - the subway chase, the man thinking he's missed the woman at the train station, etc. -- but not in enough of a funny or clever way to make it worthwhile.

All of which is too bad since you want the film to work and that it sports a relatively well-known cast. As the movie-loving hitman, however, Tim Allen ("Joe Somebody," "Big Trouble") is miscast and clearly pales in comparison to John Travolta's similar character in "Get Shorty."

Christian Slater ("Windtalkers," "3000 Miles To Graceland") pretty much plays the same sort of character he always does - with the only funny bit being someone asking his character if he's ever been told that he sounds like Jack Nicholson - while Portia De Rossi ("Stigmata," TV's "Ally McBeal") shows up as his feisty love interest. Their chemistry doesn't work that well, however, as their overall antagonistic-turned-interested relationship feels too contrived.

Richard Dreyfuss ("The Crew," "Jaws") isn't around long enough to do much, RuPaul ("But I'm a Cheerleader," "A Very Brady Sequel") is appropriately cast as a cross-dresser but his character does nothing for the story, while Billy Connolly ("An Everlasting Piece," "Still Crazy") is good as a corrupt coroner.

The likes of Peter MacNeill ("Angel Eyes," "The Caveman's Valentine") and Bill MacDonald ("The Long Kiss Goodnight," "Booty Call") play some cops, and Joseph Scoren ("Chasing Cain," "Boy Meets Girl"), Louis Di Bianco ("Moonstruck," "This is My Life") and Tony Nappo ("Men With Guns," "Murder at 1600") embody some mob figures, but none make much of a memorable impression.

Not quite as bad as when a black comedy swings and completely misses, the film thankfully isn't entirely awful or a complete embarrassment to all involved. Yet, it simply doesn't work that well due to a number of faults that only become more obvious due to the filmmaker's audacity and/or foolishness to draw our attention to them. In the end, no one will really care about trying to figure out "Who is Cletis Tout?" The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed July 29, 2002 / Posted August 2, 2002

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