Film Reviews

Dumb Luck

The latest in a series of pathetic American movies that baldly rip off foreign films, Pure Luck - based on the misadventure comedy Le Chevre (The Goat) - proves that international trade regulators should set aside important issues and get right down to the trivia. These French missed connections, which include Three Men and a Baby and Three Fugitives, not to mention Richard Gere's lifeless Breathless remake, must be stopped.

The plot of Pure Luck is the plot of Le Chevre: When the world's unluckiest heiress, Valerie Highsmith (Sheila Kelley), vanishes during a Mexican trip, her captain-of-industry father (Sam Wanamaker) fears the worst. A month later, with no leads in the case, he's willing to try anything to find her. At the advice of his company's "psychological consultant," an addled alienist named Doctor Monosoff (Harry Shearer), Highsmith orders private detective Ray Campanella (Danny Glover) to reopen the investigation in Mexico, but to bring along a secret weapon - the world's unluckiest man, accountant Eugene Proctor (Martin Short). Monosoff has a hunch that there's something scientific about bad luck, and that Proctor will find himself retracing Valerie's steps. "He may literally stumble onto her," he tells Highsmith.

Campanella, a tough-guy private eye, is none too happy about his new partner - he doesn't like the idea that his job can be done better through pseudoscience, and he doesn't like having a scrawny little pencil-pusher horning in on his territory. When the birdlike Proctor and the bearlike Campanella first meet, Pure Luck seems to have a promising comic pairing. Even the speculative physics of bad luck are entertaining, especially in a scene where Monosoff riffs on the lives of history's hapless - how Delacroix was almost strangled by a drapery cord, how John Milton's dog dragged a pile of manuscripts into the fire just as his master went blind.

But Pure Luck wears on without developing, and two hours later, when Short is still chirpy and Glover still gruff, you'll be wishing Milton's dog had pulled this script to the flames as well. Unlike Blake Edwards's Pink Panther films, which transform idiocy into a sublime comic engine, Pure Luck works on ground-floor slapstick - Proctor walking into doors, falling off balconies, slipping on a spilled box of ball bearings. Though he's a fine comic actor, Short has his prodigious verbal talents straitjacketed here, and Glover, who has become a fixture in odd-couple buddy films, looks Muppetlike and lost.

Francis Veber, who directed the French original, serves as executive producer for this film, and he has handed the reins to Nadia Tass, a young Australian director whose work (Rikki and Pete, The Big Steal) has become steadily more formulaic since her acclaimed 1985 debut, Malcolm. Tass doesn't botch the job, but she brings nothing new to the party.

Almost no one does, in fact. The screenwriting team of Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris, whose resume reads like a catalogue of the past decade's most irritating films - My Stepmother is an Alien, Brewster's Millions, and the execrable Cheaper to Keep Her, with Mac Davis - take to this project as if wit were a capital crime. The humor grows denser and denser, meaner and meaner, until the film asks for laughter in the face of mindless pistol-whippings, prison beatings, and cigarette fires. For Weber, Pure Luck is only the most recent in a series of French refries - the films he has directed and/or scripted have supplied the basis for a handful of junk-food American comedies, including The Toy (with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason), The Man with One Red Shoe (Tom Hanks and Jim Belushi), and Three Fugitives (with Short and Nick Nolte). Isn't it cheaper just to subtitle?

Directed by Nadia Tass; written by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris; with Danny Glover, Martin Short, Sheila Kelley, Harry Shearer, Scott Wilson, Sam Wanamaker, Flavio Castillero, and Willebaldo Bucio.

Rated R.

Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.

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Ben Greenman