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(2000) (Norm Macdonald, David Chappelle) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Things progressively go wrong for an abused and lowly chauffeur and his pal when they decide to get revenge on his demeaning rich boss by kidnapping her dog and asking for a million dollar ransom.
Willard Fillmore (NORM MACDONALD) has spent the past decade or so of his life serving as the unappreciated chauffeur and generally overall abused slave of Miss Crock (ELIANE STRITCH), the owner of a successful pastry corporation. While the wealthy businesswoman has no problem giving her assistant, Chip Oswald (SHERMAN HEMSLEY), fifty-thousand dollars for Christmas, she can't manage to bring herself to replace Willard's worn out jacket that belonged to his father who held the same position before him for thirty some years.

As such, Willard hates his job, but remembers the advice his father gave him about sticking with Miss Crock -- you'll get ahead" - and thus continues in his unrewarding, thankless position. His best friend, Rusty Hayes (DAVE CHAPPELLE), however, thinks he should do something about his situation. When the two happen across a kidnapping plot on an old movie playing on TV, they hatch a plan to kidnap Crock's feisty little pooch, Muffin, and ask for a million dollar ransom.

The two manage to nab the dog, but not before it bites Willard's hand and leaves his blood, along with signs of a struggle and a nebulous ransom note for Miss Crock to find. As the pooch manages to escape from his kidnappers, Crock is led to believe that someone has kidnapped Willard. Although she's initially reluctant to pay the ransom for a man she despises, public sentiment grows and Crock finds herself forced to deal with the kidnapper.

Of course, that turns out to be Willard himself as he and Rusty scramble to cover their bases when they discover they no longer have the dog and learn that Willard's so-called disappearance had made the news. With Pittsburgh detective Tom Dewey (DANIEL BENZALI) hot on the case, and asking for help from Willard's friend, Hillary (SARAH SILVERMAN), and a less than sanitary and somewhat demented mortician, Grover Cleaver (DANNY DEVITO), Willard and Rusty continually modify their plan as ever more complications foul up their plans to make Crock pay for her callous ways.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Hollywood loves a winner, and when it has a hot commodity - be it an award winning director, writer, or box office star - it will do whatever it takes to get such people behind and/or in front of the camera. That explains the huge paydays and starring roles in blockbuster films for the likes of Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks.

What it doesn't explain is the presence of "stars" such as Norm Macdonald - best known for filling the anchor seat of "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update" feature for several years -- headlining their own films. In fact, if one excludes the earlier film work of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (who each anchored the "SNL" news during the 1970s), the dozen or so other anchors clearly haven't lit up the Hollywood box office with their starring and/or supporting cinematic roles.

Macdonald's latest effort, "Screwed," isn't likely to change that trend. Other than providing one of the supporting voices in "Dr. Dolittle," the one-note actor appeared in the cinematic gems, "Billy Madison" and "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," before inexplicably getting the starring role in 1998's abysmal "Dirty Work." While some of his skit work on "SNL" was funny in varying degrees, Macdonald certainly doesn't have what it takes to pull off a character for an entire movie, and in fact, is quite a bad actor.

As such, one has to wonder how and/or why he once more has top billing in a major motion picture, although this dud was apparently so "funny" that the executives at Universal must have been so busy laughing that they forgot to screen it for the press before it opened. Obviously, if they didn't have faith in the movie, should you?

What's most surprising is that the film is the collaborative directorial debut of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote the script). Best known for penning acclaimed films such as "Ed Wood" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt," as well as last year's "Man on the Moon," the writing turned directing team is quoted in this film's press materials as wanting to re-create the zany comedies from the past that once starred the likes of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields.

While that could be considered a smart and/or admirable goal in today's world of sophomoric, brain dead comedies, one has to wonder where this effort went so wrong. Well, for starters, comedians Macdonald and costar Dave Chappelle ("Blue Streak," "You've Got Mail") aren't anywhere near being in the same league as their cinematic predecessors. Those performers had class and superb timing, not to mention some decent if not great written material with which to work.

Despite Alexander and Karaszewski's more recent, joint pedigree, one must remember that they were also the same fellows who penned pictures such as "That Darn Cat" and the "Problem Child" films. Their script here and the subsequent direction of it isn't very clever, imaginative or worst yet, funny. The "humor" is too direct in its set-up and execution, and when such efforts don't work, the filmmakers resort to "gross out" material and elements lifted from "There's Something About Mary" (such as the dog attack scene) hoping to find some laughs.

Unfortunately, none of the that's fruitful and the film consequently comes off as a vapid and weak effort. Had the film's bumbling protagonists been given more of a proactive role in shaping how the story develops, the film may have been more enjoyable. Instead of having them plot out an elaborate, if misguided kidnapping scheme that goes terribly, but hilariously wrong, however, the film plays out each portion of their plan as short little vignettes that don't work on their own and don't add to any greater collective whole.

As a result, the film doesn't proceed along the lines of the brilliant and clever "Ruthless People" that got funnier as it unfolded, and instead simply plods along from one lame complication to the next. Perhaps if someone other than Macdonald appeared in the lead role the film may have had a chance of working to some small degree. Alas, that's not the case and the actor's incredibly limited range and inability to do anything with his character clearly harms the picture's chances.

As Macdonald's sidekick, Dave Chappelle fairs somewhat better (simply because he's a better comedic actor), but he similarly can't do much with his less than imaginatively constructed character. Theater veteran Elaine Stritch (who's also appeared in the films "Cocoon: The Return" and "September") does a decent job portraying the one-note villain, but Danny DeVito ("Drowning Mona," "Ruthless People") and Daniel Benzali ("Murder at 1600," TV's "Murder One") are pretty much wasted in their roles as a sick mortician and stern detective respectively.

Regardless of the other performances, however, the film's success, or lack thereof, hinges completely on Macdonald's abilities. Unfortunately, that's a huge shortcoming and the film can't overcome either that or the simple fact that it's a poorly conceived and executed "comedy." Appropriately titled for how most moviegoers will feel after sitting through this mess and certain to describe Macdonald's movie career if he keeps appearing in stinkers like this, "Screwed" rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed May 12, 2000 / Posted May 13, 2000

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