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IN SHORT: Almost close to dynamite, but destined for your home viewing pleasure. [Rated R for Language, Some Violence and Sexuality. 93 minutes]
Film makers must have a rock solid sense of security and confidence in their project to label it with a title such as "Who is Cletis Tout?" because such a title leaves them open to the flat out diss, "who cares?" (or worse) from cranky and cynical old farts such as we. Now, in the hottest, muggiest, most disgustingly unpleasant time of the year comes a movie stuffed with character clichés (a hit man with a heart of gold, a forger with morals) and more familiar faces than you can shake a stick at. Frankly, the air conditioning in the theaters is a bonus for those of you who search out Who is Cletis Tout?, a clever and terrific bit of writing, dead on perfect for everyone who must plant in an art house due to allergic reactions to explosions or aliens or spurting spider blood, now flowing in the first run theaters. In the hands of a more experienced director, you'd be flocking to the first run houses to see this film, because that's how good writer Chris Ver Weil has the potential to be. Director Chris Ver Weil, on the other hand, fails to raise the level of play anywhere above a level field. The romantic subplot in his story doesn't bubble and a major bit of suspense saved for the Third Act doesn't even get near a simmer.
Yeah, we know what our trademark reads but we truly do hate it sometimes. Casts that are this good don't come together unless they've seen a script that makes 'em plotz. That being said, we also know about pride and direction skills and the desire to hold on and make your mark with something uniquely yours. Who is Cletis Tout? is Chris Ver Weil's second outing at the helm. His first didn't get out of the film festival circuit. This film, like Tadpole of a couple of weeks ago, will probably see first light in your DVD or VCR.
Directing isn't just a matter of telling actors and cameramen what to do. It is a skill that requires a great visual sense and, in Ver Weil's the case, his visual sense is still in the fingers pounding at his keyboard. Best example comes early in the film, during a flashback sequence in which a magician/mime engineers a one-man diamond heist, with the help of a big red balloon. But you'd never hear about this particular story if a certain hit man named Critical Jim (Tim Allen) wasn't pointing a handgun at the face of a forger named Trevor Finch (Christian Slater) who, in tandem with cellmate Micah Tobias (Richard Dreyfuss), "purchased" new identities with the help of crooked M.E. Dr. Savian (Billy Connolly). One of those identities was a lowlife named Cletis Tout, a video journalist who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Micah, by the way, was the magician who heisted and buried the diamonds in that flashback sequence. Now you're caught up.
Filmfan Critical Jim -- hell, if he wasn't whacking the lowlifes he'd be wanting this particular gig -- thinks that Finch is Tout and gives the man 90 minutes to come up with a good enough story to change his mind about pulling the trigger (90 minutes being the amount of time the mobsters have to pay up). The story Finch recounts is the one Micah told him about the diamond heist and bridges the twenty year gap in which little girl Tess, Micah's daughter, has all growed up into the very attractive Portia de Rossi. Tess, obviously, will be the love interest of our soon to be snuffed hero, at least in the story, if not in real life. The clock is ticking, after all.
The film fanatic hitman helps embellish the story -- his dialog seems to consist only of quotes from classic movies -- almost to the point where we don't really know how much is "real" and how much is embellishment. At the center of the pitch are those diamonds, hidden during the flashback and now in a place where retrieval is almost impossible. On the edges are the mobsters who want "Cletis Tout" dead and are too dumb to know that they got it right in the first place (for reasons we won't go into). Holding everything together is the "love story" that just doesn't ignite, and its use of a visual cliché at the film's end is the clunkiest of all nods to old films.
Overall, if the story of Who is Cletis Tout? wasn't such a good one, the fact that this film is so aware of its "reality" as a film would have had us shifting in our seat due to a precocious "look at us we know old films we're so darn clever" attitude that we've suffered through in other films. We don't like "clever," and we appreciate the fact that this script doesn't get all that self indulgent. It fairly reeks of potential. That's a good thing.
Tim Allen doesn't crack a grin in his role as paid killer, and his transformation from comic to hard-core dramatic actor is seamless, as his character actively helps "develop" the ongoing pitch. Slater manages to get a note of desperation across without behaving desperate; his scenes with de Rossi show the spark of chemistry but aren't pushed much farther. Dreyfuss and Connolly are the icing on the cake, in roles that are as supportive as they are important and well played. Additional humor is provided by RuPaul, whose fifteen minutes of fame expired long ago, and whose cross dressing ways are put to good use.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Who is Cletis Tout, he would have paid . . .
Who is Cletis Tout? is a simple story told in a pancake flat manner. For those that prefer the arthouse, it's fine. For everyone else, seek it out when it hits the vidstore.
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