It's not exactly a good sign when a movie starring Tim Allen, Christian Slater, and Richard Dreyfuss gets dumped into one or two arthouse theaters after a couple years on the shelf. Even if none of them is a guaranteed box office draw (though Allen was, until Joe Somebody and Big Trouble), you'd think they'd all three be enough to get any film a wide release. Not this time. Even the presence of Tom Cruise probably wouldn't save Who Is Cletis Tout? from the box office oblivion it's clearly destined for. It may yet find a few fans, though unless you're a diehard backer of any of the principals, you can't really justify the average movie ticket price.
As with his Toy Story pal Sheriff Woody, Tim Allen undoubtedly figured that playing a hit man would expand his range and break him out of the "toolman" rut. Like his buddy, however, Allen's not entirely brave enough to go all out, so he plays a hit man with heart, a good guy stuck in a dirty job, this time going by the name of Critical Jim -- not because his victims end up in critical condition, but rather because he fancies himself a film critic. Allen spouts film quotes and dates like wrestling weirdo Goldust, and randomly varies the volume of his voice like Adam West in his heyday, all the while demonstrating the cinematic critical acumen of Larry King (he crucially misunderstands the three-act structure, and it isn't clear if this is an intentional gag or not).
The framing device of the movie sees Allen lording it over a bound and gagged Christian Slater while urging him at gunpoint to tell his story as if it were a movie pitch. Much like John Travolta in Swordfish, this gives Allen the opportunity to critique Hollywood ("Concentrate on the gimmick, and you shortchange the ending") while leaving the movie wide open to ironic attacks from real critics. Unlike in Swordfish, though, there are no cool bullet-time effects or uncovered titties to distract us from the mission at hand. So, though it may be obvious to say so, this movie is all gimmick -- Slater's "pitch" unfolds in real time over the next 90 minutes. But it's barely a movie: Who Is Cletis Tout? feels like an extended improv class sketch, where nothing follows from the action that preceded it, but rather from some outlandish coincidence, a fragile framework upon which to hang broad, mildly fleshed-out characters that seem to have been conjured up only ten minutes prior to filming.
In a flashback sequence overburdened with insufferable music, we learn that a mime named Micah Tobias (Robin Williams look-alike Tim Progosh) robbed a bank in 1977 and buried the diamonds he scored while his young daughter looked on. Flash forward to the present, and Micah is still behind bars as a result, having improbably aged into Richard Dreyfuss and befriended cyber-crook Finch (Slater). The two escape from jail using the most ridiculous scheme ever -- one that requires a fully functional movie camera -- hop on a train that conveniently runs right beside the prison, and reunite with Tobias's now-grown daughter (Portia de Rossi, clearly cast solely because of her looks) to regain the diamonds. In what seems like a simple step, Finch uses his talents to create false identities culled from bodies found at the morgue; one he appropriates is the titular Cletis Tout. Too bad this Cletis is no slack-jawed yokel, but rather a sleazy tabloid journalist in possession of a videotape of a gangland golden boy murdering a hooker, resulting in a major price on his head.
Writer-director Chris Ver Wiel (Waiting Game) draws from many references -- in addition to the numerous blatant movie cribs by Allen's character, the film features Forrest Gump's feather fetish, Blue Streak's "long-lost loot with a secure building now built atop it" premise, and a Tarantino-like obsession with hit men discussing pop culture. What it lacks are solid performances, save Slater's game attempt to take everything seriously. Allen has long had the potential for a darker edge, but Ver Wiel has no idea how to bring it out: The one scene in which Allen gets to go nuts is a silly scene in which he forces taggers to spray-paint themselves (he does, however, get the film's sole good line when he explicitly compares Finch to Jack Nicholson). De Rossi is an extraordinarily weak leading lady, standing out as a vain actress rather than a character, but what else would one expect from the woman formerly known as Amanda Lee Rogers? The movie is technically shaky as well -- the color timing and sound editing were horribly off at the press screening, though one hopes this may be fixed by release day.
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