7 August 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

With higher-profile "Mafia!" coming up lame at the boxoffice and comedies of all kinds flooding the theatrical market, it's doubtful that modestly budgeted, unevenly funny gangster spoof "Safe Men" will make off with more than chump change. The small October Films release might find a bigger, undemanding audience on cable.

Sam Rockwell ("Lawn Dogs") and Steve Zahn ("That Thing You Do!") head an ensemble cast in the debut of writer-director John Hamburg, an NYU alum who made the short "Tick". Set in the Jewish underworld of Providence, R.I., "Safe Men" has a few good laughs and memorable moments but not enough flair or pizazz to boost its reputation over time.

Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Zahn) are lousy singer-songwriters mistaken for master safecrackers and shanghaied by a mobster known around town as Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti). Mr. Chop works for Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner), a bully who accuses the bewildered leads of trying to rob his house in an obvious setup and demands that they break into three safes.

Of course, Sam and Eddie have no clue how to meet that obligation, but feeling sufficiently threatened, they give it a try. Meanwhile, there is a two-man team of real thieves (Josh Pais, Mark Ruffalo) who cross their paths, the looming bar mitzvah of Big Fat Bernie Jr. (Michael Schmidt) and Bernie Sr.'s rivalry with scheming fence Good Stuff Leo (Harvey Fierstein).

Sam and Eddie often get stuck on small details of their befuddled existence; in one scene, their silly arguing is interrupted by one of their robbery victims. But Hannah (Christina Kirk) is the crimewise daughter of Leo and takes an instant liking to Sam. Knowing that she has given up dating crooks, Sam tries to lie, but like practically everything else, he's not good at it.

Lerner and Giamatti go for broad strokes. The not-at-all-fresh ethnic angle is exploited with repetitive jokes but nothing too offensive. Rockwell and Zahn are either whiny babies or wily risk takers, and their nerdy charisma and dumb-guys shtick are likewise predictable after the first few rounds. Newcomer Kirk is a bit tentative but alluring as the lone female.

SAFE MEN

October Films

An Andell Entertainment production in association with Blue Guitar Films

Writer-director: John Hamburg

Producers: Andrew Hauptman, Ellen Bronfman, Jeffrey Clifford, Jonathan Cohen

Director of photography: Michael Barrett

Production designer: Anthony Gasparro

Editor: Suzanne Pillsbury

Costume designer: Cat Thomas

Music: Theodore Shapiro

Casting: Avy Kaufman

Color/stereo

Cast:

Sam: Sam Rockwell

Eddie: Steve Zahn

Veal Chop: Paul Giamatti

Big Fat Bernie Gayle: Michael Lerner

Hannah: Christina Kirk

Good Stuff Leo: Harvey Fierstein

Bernie Jr.: Michael Schmidt

Frank: Mark Ruffalo

Mitchell: Josh Pais

Running time -- 88 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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