Although Universal Pictures' "Screwed" aspires to slapstick situation comedy in the Marx Brothers tradition, the film, like its lead characters, comes unglued almost from the start and never has a chance to live up to the heights of its comedic predecessors.
The directorial debut of screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
("The People vs. Larry Flynt", "Man on the Moon"), "Screwed" is tripped up not so much by a moronic plot as by an overall shrillness that not even headliners Norm Macdonald
and Dave Chappelle
, comedic wizards they might be, can pull off.
Macdonald and Chappelle play bumbling, idiot extortionists who yell 90% of their dialogue. For sure, the 1930s and '40s flicks that inspired the filmmakers often featured shouting matches between characters, but the gimmick falls flat here. Movies of the past decade such as "The Impostors" and "Radioland Murders" are proof enough that even savvy filmmakers like Stanley Tucci
and George Lucas
have similarly hit a brick wall trying to re-create that zany energy and snappy dialogue -- in full-blown period productions, no less.
"Screwed" opens with the introduction of Willard (Macdonald), chauffeur and all-purpose servant to wealthy matron Miss Crock (Elaine Stritch
), owner and operator of a pastry company in Pittsburgh. The monstrous Crock and her dog Muffin make life miserable for Willard, whose father also worked for the nasty woman. Needless to say, her hateful, vindictive nature is something no sane person would choose to be around for 15 minutes -- let alone a lifetime.
But Willard is a congenital coward and self-defeating sneak who glumly accepts his lot -- until he learns he's about to be canned. He then hatches a plan to kidnap Muffin and ransom the mutt for $1 million. He talks restaurant-owning Rusty (Chappelle) into becoming his accomplice, and, after a few botched attempts, the pair appears to succeed.
Of course, the would-be thugs lose track of Muffin instantly, all the while yelling about how they're going to spend the money. Willard and Rusty don't even realize the dog is gone until they hear breaking news reports of the chauffeur's kidnapping. Changing plans in a hurry, they decide to demand $5 million from Crock for Willard, then go the whole nine yards by faking Willard's death with help from undertaker Grover Cleaver (Danny DeVito).
Other unfortunates caught up in the increasingly unfunny farce are a detective (Daniel Benzali
) so unamused he seems more like the studio accountant, Crock's scheming business and personal partner (Sherman Hemsley
) and Willard's poorly drawn love interest (Sarah Silverman).
DeVito gets some of the biggest laughs, and Stritch supplies one overbearing note through this concerto of misery that at least has the sense to call it quits at 82 minutes.
"Screwed" -- released wide Friday without advance screenings for critics and, not surprisingly, performing dismally -- is not even the first film to use the title; Alexander Crawford
's 1996 documentary "Screwed", about multimedia pornographer Al Goldstein
, had a limited release. Nor can the failed comedy be called the season's most legendary disaster -- that title already belongs to Warners' "Battlefield Earth", also released Friday.
A Robert Simonds/Brad Grey production
Screenwriter-directors: Scott Alexander,
Producer: Robert Simonds
Executive producers: Brad Grey, Ray Reo
Director of photography: Robert Brinkmann
Production designer: Mark Freeborn
Editor: Michael Jablow
Costume designer: Maya Mani
Music: Michael Colombier
Willard Fillmore: Norm Macdonald
Rusty P. Hayes: Dave Chappelle
Miss Crock: Elaine Stritch
Grover Cleaver: Danny DeVito
Detective Tom Dewey: Daniel Benzali
Chip Oswald: Sherman Hemsley
Hillary: Sarah Silverman
Running time -- 82 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13