THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (2000) / ** 1/2
Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner. Starring Bruce Willis, Matthew Perry, Natasha Henstridge. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated AA. Reviewed on March 16th, 2000.
By SHANNON PATRICK SULLIVAN
Sometimes, comedy is easy. Romance, sports, teen angst -- these topics and others have often been mined for the purpose of making us laugh. (Every now and then, it's even done successfully.) Other subjects have proved more difficult to capture successfully in a comedy format, however. Of these, few have been more elusive than the gangster genre.
"The Whole Nine Yards" is the latest attempt to marry mirth and the mob, telling the screwball tale of Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky (Matthew Perry). Oseransky's life is less than idyllic: he is trapped in a loveless marriage, he's forced to pay off his late father-in-law's enormous debts, and he's a dentist. Just when things seem as though they can't get any worse, Oz recognizes his new next-door neighbor as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski (Bruce Willis), a feared hitman who turned state's evidence against Chicago's Gogolack gang and has recently been released from prison.
Oz does his best to ignore the situation, eventually becoming friends with Tudeski. But Oz's scheming wife Sophie (Rosanna Arquette) has other ideas. She forces him to fly to Chicago to inform mob boss Yanni Gogolack (Kevin Pollak, with a hilariously ridiculous accent) as to The Tulip's whereabouts and collect a finder's fee, while at the same time telling Jimmy what Oz is doing, in the hope that Tudeski will bump off her husband. To make matters worse, in Chicago Oz meets Jimmy's wife Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge) and instantly falls in love with her. It turns out that she, Jimmy and Gogolack have entered into an agreement whereby if two of them die, the third gets ten million dollars. It is this deal which drives the final two-thirds of the movie, as the different players try to bump each other off, and Oz tries to save Cynthia while not losing his own head.
Like most mob comedies, "The Whole Nine Yards" faces the difficult task of juxtaposing laughs with the sheer brutality of the gangster profession. Some movies deal with this by indulging in the truly bizarre, like Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs". Others simply tone down the violence, so that the jokes seem less incongruous. "The Whole Nine Yards" does neither, and the result is a somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience. I found it difficult at times to laugh at the sitcom-level humor of the film, immediately after seeing four men blown away in a hail of gunfire.
Neither of the principals really seems to embrace the material, perhaps themselves uncertain how to reconcile the movie's plot with its comedic intentions. Willis looks like he's cruising in neutral as Tudeski. While The Tulip is given a number of interesting personality traits, they never really come together to form a convincing, complete individual. Perry's Oz is basically just his Chandler Bing character from the TV series "Friends" transplanted to a different milieu; even some of the vocal mannerisms are identical. He's likeable enough as a sympathetic Ordinary Joe caught up in events beyond his control, but just doesn't have the on-screen presence to really absorb the viewer into his plight.
Better are the supporting characters, particularly Amanda Peet as Jill St Claire, Oz's receptionist who harbors secrets of her own. Peet clearly relishes her role, and her electrifying performance helps her steal scenes from the more tepid Willis and Perry. Star of the TV sitcom "Jack and Jill", Peet appears to be a comedy star on the rise. Michael Clarke Duncan also has fun as Frankie Figs, one of Tudeski's hitman confreres.
"The Whole Nine Yards" is set for the most part in Montréal, and is attractively photographed. Surprisingly, though, it takes little advantage of the Francophone milieu. The movie is liberally sprinkled with the French language (and Arquette sports a grotesquely exaggerated Québecois accent), but virtually none of the humor arises from the unique culture, beyond a running gag about hamburgers and mayonnaise. This is unfortunate; were the comedy to arise more naturally from the film's situations and surroundings, instead of resorting to routine one-liners and pratfalls, I think I would have found the violent aspects of the plot less jarring and easier to swallow.
Like last year's "Analyze This", "The Whole Nine Yards" is an only partially-successful mob comedy. It has its moments, especially when Peet is involved, but the time between laughs is often lengthy, and many of the jokes just don't pack much of a punch, especially when paired with the violence of the gangster lifestyle. This is a film which desperately needs to eschew the conventions of the sitcom format and more wholly embrace its subject material. In essence, instead of falling back on a tired comedy format, "The Whole Nine Yards" needs to go the whole nine yards.
Copyright © 2000 Shannon Patrick Sullivan. Archived at http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies/TheWholeNineYards.html
-- _______________________________________________________________________ / Shannon Patrick Sullivan | "We are all in the gutter, but some of us \ | | are looking at the stars." | \ firstname.lastname@example.org | -- Oscar Wilde /
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