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The Femme Fatale Makes a Comedic Comeback in 'One Night at McCool's'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2001

   


    'One Night at McCool's' John Goodman and Paul Reiser in "One Night at McCool's." (USA)
Had it been made in the late '40s, "One Night at McCool's" would have played straight, no chaser – a black-and-white fable about a dame with fetching ways and no soul at all. She jerks men up, down and sideways until the chump change falls out of their pockets and they end up whacking each other in a night-street gunfight. I see Jane Greer as the babe and Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas as the chumps. It's noir variant No. 432, sub-category B-IV: the femme fatale.

But it's the early '00s, and possibly we lack the moral conviction to assign evil that un-self-consciously. In our grayer era, the thing is played for laughs so broad that the final shootout is more like a pie fight, taking place in a knickknacky living room where the gunfire chews up the upholstery and sends feathers tumbling through the air. And there is a Douglas, but it's only Kirk's dull son, Michael, under a polyester wig that makes him look like a glum reject from the Kevin Costner role in "3000 Miles to Graceland."

Douglas, as it turns out, is the dullest thing in the movie, which otherwise builds up some energy in its permutations of feckless male behavior in thrall to a beauty of a woman who dresses to emphasize that in certain areas, God has been very generous to her. You may point out that they haven't made many movies like this in 40 years, so what's the point of an elaborate parody this late in the game? Gee, wish I knew.

But on its own terms, "One Night at McCool's" is fun, if you're inclined toward cynicism, contempt, nihilism and cool stuff like that. It seems to take its inspiration from that famous moment in "Body Heat" when Kathleen Turner comments on William Hurt's lack of excess IQ points, and then adds, "I like that in a man." "One Night at McCool's" also likes that in its men.

The film is structured, film noir style, around three confessions, as the three chumps unburden themselves. The bartender Randy (Matt Dillon) is detoxifying himself by telling his tale to a hit man (Douglas) he's just hired to set things right; Randy's lawyer cousin Carl (Paul Reiser) to a shrink (played, in a clever casting twist, by country music star Reba McEntire); and the investigating detective Dehling (John Goodman) to his priest. All three have been roughed up plenty by this frail. She's Minnie the Moocher as Nietzschean ueber-woman.

Each tells essentially the same story and each begins at the same point: the moment he saw Jewel.

To see Jewel, to paraphrase the late Harold Brodkey, is to see Marxism die. The young actress Liv Tyler fills the role – entirely, I might add. Is Tyler a bit young for this sort of thing and should the director, Dutchman Harald Zwart, arrange her for examination by the camera so clinically? Well, maybe yes, maybe no, but neither possibility occurred to me at the time.

In any event, in the parking lot outside McCool's, Randy rescues her from her abusive boyfriend (played by Andrew Silverstein, who also performs under his real fake name, Andrew Dice Clay) and is rewarded by – well, we can't go there.

But it's all a setup. The boyfriend shows up (at Randy's place) to rob the sex-daffy man, but it turns out Jewel really does have affection for Randy, which she expresses by blowing a .357 through her boyfriend's skull. Or maybe she just saw "Dice Rules." But then she cons Randy into taking the fall for the killing, which is adjudicated, through the good offices of the smitten detective Dehling, as justifiable homicide. Meanwhile, Carl, who glimpsed Jewel in the same parking lot, has invited his cousin and the new girlfriend to dinner at his suburban house, where he paws her pitifully in front of his yuppie wife and kids.

The mechanism here is clever: Each man is a victim of his own romantic delusion, and each insists on seeing in Jewel his own wish fulfillment. For Randy, she's the good woman who will replicate his sweet Ma, for the far kinkier Carl she's the bad woman who will use the old riding crop in places where the moon don't shine, and for the religious Dehling, she's an angel who needs his suffocating protection.

Nobody gets that she's pretty much in the game for herself, and soon enough she's manipulating Randy into a burglary career, tormenting Carl for the pleasure of it (the motive for her attraction to Carl seems to get lost in the shuffle) and conning the poor big cop into taking up her cause by filing a restraining order against Randy (whom she's kicked out of his own house).

Toward the end, the plotting becomes a little suspect, particularly when Silverstein reappears as his previous character's yet-more-evil twin. When the guns come out, the world is pretty much turned to Swiss cheese, with nary a last man standing. And could Douglas have been encouraged to act even a little?

But it's funny in a cynical way, especially the hyper-verbal Reiser, who spins himself as much as he spins his shrink and ends up for his troubles running down the street in handcuffs and leather, with a leash around his neck and panic on his face. I like that in a man.

"One Night at McCool's" (92 minutes) is rated R for profanity, violence and sexual intensity.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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