Film Reviews

Stepin Retchit

The NAACP once accused controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of being prejudiced. The cross-dressing pit bull's characteristically sensitive response was that he was buddies with Amos (Freeman Gosden) and Andy (Charles Correll), white men who played embarrassing black stereotypes on a popular radio program. Needless to say, the NAACP was not exactly placated.

Were Hoover still alive, he could also say he was a big fan of Amos & Andrew, a sophomoric, self-conscious half-comedy that wants to be taken seriously as an anti-racism epistle. Nicolas Cage stars as Amos Odell, a small-time white trash ne'er-do-well with a resume that includes statutory rape. ("She looked eighteen," he says with a lecherous grin that implies, "But if she wasn't, so much the better." Har har.) As the movie opens, Odell is languishing in jail on a stolen car rap.

Dabney Coleman is image-conscious Police Chief Tolliver, who finds himself in the uncomfortable predicament of having opened fire upon a man A a black man A in his own house, after neighbors mistook him for a burglar. And this is no ordinary black man A Tolliver's underlings have mistakenly pinned down Andrew Sterling (the suddenly ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson), a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright with an ambiguous yet impressive-sounding academic background and a chip on his shoulder. Sterling, in turn, believes he's being attacked not by cops but by white supremacists who want to off him for being too outspoken and successful. A standoff of sorts ensues, with Sterling cowering inside his house as the officers, guns drawn, surround it.

When he discovers his error (committed in an election year, no less), Tolliver cooks up a plot to extricate himself that only confounds matters further (and one that any self-respecting TV sitcom would reject as too farfetched). Coleman has a few good moments as the desperate police chief who offers Odell a patsy's deal: break into Sterling's house posing as a white supremacist, take Sterling hostage, then give up. In return for his cooperation, the cop will let the hood get out of town on the first bus north. Tolliver starts out as a sympathetic character, the only person who realizes the truth behind both his and Sterling's dilemmas. Once Odell enters Sterling's house, however, and the national news media arrive and deploy themselves with a haste even the Green Berets would find impressive, Tolliver suddenly and inexplicably becomes a spiteful, racist double-dealer, thereby sealing his eventual comeuppance according to the universal code that governs middling screenplays.

We're supposed to delight in the ham-fisted irony of a poor, dumb, white criminal and an educated, wealthy, pompous, black homeowner under duress and forced to come to terms with each other. Instead we are unable to overcome incredulity at the level of ineptitude broached by the whole nonsensical mess. Dumb scene tumbles on top of dumb scene like defensive football players in the era before they outlawed piling on. A clumsy subplot involving a protest mob led by an opportunistic black activist is introduced, apparently for the sole purpose of manufacturing a plot device to accidentally set Sterling's house ablaze. You can almost hear Stepin Fetchit saying, "Oops, sorry boss!" Bloodhounds are thrown off Sterling's scent and on to Tolliver's when, after he's been tracked into the middle of nowhere, the playwright lets the dogs sniff Tolliver's badge and wallet. Forget the fact that Sterling's been carrying the billfold in his pocket for hours, or that the police chief is miles away, so there's no way for the hounds to pick up his scent. Off they sprint.

As for humor (this is, after all, purportedly a comedy), Sterling's pot-smoking yuppie neighbor, an obsequious attorney who earned his radical badge defending the Chicago Seven, and his perky wife are closet S&M freaks with a drawerful of dildos and leather. Sterling ties them up with their bondage accoutrements and calls them perverts, the implication being that all middle-age suburban white liberals are deviants. We, of course, are supposed to share Sterling's righteous indignation and laugh at the couple's fetish even as we wink at Amos Odell's predilection for adolescent pizza delivery girls.

Nicolas Cage and Samuel Jackson should be ashamed of themselves for taking roles that would have been better served by Tony Danza and Meshach Taylor. Jackson does his best to lend some dignity to the undertaking, but Cage just seems to get oilier and oilier with age; his Amos Odell is essentially a rehash of the compulsive convenience store robber he played in Raising Arizona. Dabney Coleman exhibits a surprising flair for physical comedy, but it's not enough to compensate for the two-dimensional performances of the rest of the supporting cast.

Even the movie's title is arbitrary and disappointing. It could have just as easily been Bill & Ted, or any other combination of men's names. Odell and Sterling have nothing in common with the radio Amos and Andy. Choosing those monikers was, like the film, halfbaked and tasteless.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony