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(2001) (Douglas McGrath, Sigourney Weaver) (PG-13)

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Comedy: After lying about being a government agent, a bumbling high school grammar teacher finds himself working in Cuba for the CIA and becomes involved in early attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro.
It's the early 1960s and Allen Quimp (DOUGLAS MCGRATH) is a henpecked high school grammar teacher whose wife, Daisy (SIGOURNEY WEAVER), wants the better things in life that his current job can't provide. After her father puts pressure on him to get a better job, Allen decides to make up a lie to get both of them off his back. Inspired by the sight of several letters on a robe, he comes up with the fib that he's really working undercover for the CIA and that the fact that he's the last person anyone would confuse for such a person means he has the perfect cover.

Although sworn to secrecy, Daisy soon informs everyone in town about her husband's "real" job, eventually causing Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Petrov (RYAN PHILLIPPE) to come to him to defect. While the CIA is upset that Allen is impersonating one of their agents, they decide to make him a real one so that they can take credit for Petrov's defection. Accordingly, they then decide to send him to some third world backwater where he'll be out of sight. Thus, he arrives in Cuba, where CIA Officers Fry (DENIS LEARY) and Lowther (WOODY ALLEN) inform him of the current political climate, which they see as benign despite the growing turbulence and instability.

After accidentally learning the identity of a double agent the "company" has been looking for over the past several years, Allen is suddenly the hot topic of conversation, a point that pleases Daisy to no end since she's writing a novel about her husband's secret life. Things become more interesting when Allen meets a rogue agent, Crocker Johnson (JOHN TURTURRO), who has the recently overthrown dictator, Fulgencio Batista (ALAN CUMMING) in tow.

Johnson seeks to undermine and remove Cuba's new leader, Fidel Castro (ANTHONY LAPAGLIA), from office and wants Allen's help. From that point on, and as we see some of the ensuing events in flashback as Allen testifies in hindsight in front of a secret Senate hearing headed by a disbelieving Senator (JEFFREY JONES), Allen, Johnson and Batista then attempt various schemes to overthrow Castro, eventually leading to their involvement in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
The mistaken identity plot has fueled fiction for thousands of years, and while it can serve most any genre, it's usually best suited for comedies, and that's because of the inherent qualities of such character misconceptions and/or ruses. In such stories, characters often purposefully feign being someone else or living a different life for any number of reasons. Conversely, others often mistake the protagonist for someone else, either with or without the protagonist's knowledge.

Regardless of the scenario, the humor then stems from the person purposefully or accidentally being involved in the ruse or mistake that usually spirals out of control, as well as others' reactions to that in relation to who or what they believe that person to be.

Such setups can result in outrageous comedy and slapstick material ("Some Like It Hot" and about a gazillion sitcom episodes) or keen and clever observational humor (such as "Being There"). Unfortunately, neither is present in full force in "Company Man," a slight, screwball comedy that starts off with an okay premise and some decent laughs, but quickly disintegrates into a mess of a film.

Something akin to one of those bad "Saturday Night Live" skit-based films that quickly runs aground long before its over, this film has apparently been sitting on the shelf for some time - as indicated by the 1999 copyright notice. Attempting to create something of an old-fashioned, absurd/silly comedy - what with its fantastical plot and heaping helpings of exaggerated overacting - the film unfortunately turns out to be far more annoying and painful than funny.

Like "Forrest Gump," the film also tries its hand at comedic revisionism by placing its protagonist in or around various historical events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, some material individually involving J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe, and even the explanation behind the birthmark stain atop former Premier Gorbachev's noggin.

While that may sound cute or clever in a Gump type fashion, and there's certainly some inherent potential with which co-writers and directors Peter Askin (wrote the screenplay for Smithereens, directed HBO's "Spic-O-Rama") and Douglas McGrath (director "Emma," co-writer of "Bullets Over Broadway") could have generated some big laughs - especially considering the CIA's real-life, but bizarre attempts at disposing Castro -- that all but disappears after the first third or so of this thankfully short, eighty-some minute film.

Somewhat like Stanley Tucci's "The Impostors" and Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost," the filmmakers here are trying to evoke an old-fashioned aura and atmosphere from a bygone Hollywood era. While there's something to be said for that and they do indeed achieve that look and feel, the fact that it trips over the line into forced inanity and that audiences haven't seen this sort of goofy story and characters since Woody Allen's early years and Mel Brooks' outrageous comedies, all but means a quick trip to the video shelves for this film.

That said, the picture does get by for a while on its goofy and silly style and demeanor, and there are some fun and funny bits of dialogue. Some of that stems from the grammar instructor turned spy's matter of fact insistence on correcting everyone's grammatical errors in their everyday speech. Although that running gag is nearly run into the ground, it does make for some funny moments, especially when Denis Leary ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "Wag the Dog") is the unhappy recipient of such advice.

Once the story fully shifts into its pre-Bay of Pigs Cuban locale, however, it starts to unravel and become more forced than inspired and carefree. While McGrath, who also plays the protagonist, is obviously paying back his former mentor (they worked together on "Bullets Over Broadway"), the presence and related shtick on display by Woody Allen ("Manhattan Murder Mystery," "Annie Hall") does nothing for the film. Although one could make the connection to his role in "Bananas," Allen simply retreads his usual neurotic routine that progressively seems more outdated and less funny with each occurrence.

Purposefully overacted performances by two of the film's talented actors don't help matters. John Turturro ("O Brother Where Art Thou?" "Do the Right Thing") is in full bug-eyed mode as a crazed and manic CIA agent bent on disposing Castro, while Alan Cumming ("Titus," "Goldeneye") puts a flamboyant and effeminate spin on deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista who casually drops names of other famous dictators. While some viewers might enjoy and/or find something to like in their performances - which certainly can't be faulted for effort - most everyone else will probably find them more annoying than funny. Meanwhile, Anthony LaPaglia ("The House of Mirth," "One Good Cop") doesn't do much in playing Castro beyond the standard stereotypes.

As the protagonist, McGrath ("The Insider," "Happiness") delivers a fun, 1950s type earnestness to his role - something akin to an adult cousin or next-door neighbor to all of the wise and seemingly unflappable TV sitcom fathers of the era. While it's not the sort of role or performance that generates huge laughs, it's often amusing until the film falls out from beneath him and becomes too ridiculous for its own good.

Sigourney Weaver ("Working Girl," the "Alien" films), who recently seems to have returned to the comedy route with "Galaxy Quest," this film and the upcoming "Heartbreakers," is decent as the high maintenance wife turned spy novel author, but isn't given enough latitude to really run with the character (although she seems to be having a blast playing the character).

One of those efforts that too often stumbles across the line from being goofy-funny to goofy-painfully stupid, the film has a decent premise, some good early laughs, and gets credit for trying to resurrect a long dead style of cinematic comedy. Yet, it unfortunately loses steam and most of its senses as it progresses, turning what could have been a charming spy caper into a mostly painful mess. "Company Man" rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed March 5, 2001 / Posted March 9, 2001

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