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'Nothing to Lose': Go Along for the Ride

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1997

What would happen if you made a movie about the misadventures of two stereotypically exaggerated black men and you called it "Amos 'n' Andy"? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I think you'd not only be out of business but removed from the surface of the planet. The only thing left would be the dashes in your Social Security number.

Suppose, however, you took the same concept with the slight wrinkle that one of the two stereotypes was white. You could call it "Amos 'n' Tad" and you'd probably have a monster hit.

And that's essentially what "Nothing to Lose" is: an Amos 'n' Tad movie. And that's why it'll be a monster hit although its heroes happen to be named T (Martin Lawrence) and Nick (Tim Robbins).

How familiar is this? The black guy is unemployed, totes a gun, is bitterly angry, has criminal tendencies and talks in a jazz-driven street rap of blinding originality except for the use of a 12-letter word as all eight parts of speech.

Try the next wrinkle: The white guy is uncoordinated, can't fight, is a total wuss, turns his destructiveness pointlessly on himself. He hits like a girl. He has no soul, only blueprints in his head. Plus, he likes to lecture black people on what is wrong with them and is always surprised when they find that annoying.

It shouldn't work, it couldn't work, it won't work, but, dammit, it does. I hated myself for laughing, but laugh I did, even when stifling myself so that only giggly squeaks popped from my nostrils. The movie even manages to play that familiar G-flat chord from the civics lessons: brotherly love and how close we all are under the skin.

That's because Robbins and Lawrence have "it," whatever "it" is: chemistry, electricity, timing, mutual respect, complementary prescriptions, whatever. They get an almost athletic thing going, like a great double-play combination, turning the corner every time in equal parts of grace, guts and world-class skill.

The movie is sturdily set up, and generates laugh after laugh on its solid foundation. Nick, an advertising man, works almost literally in an ivory tower -- a huge, sleek, circular building where he's a benevolent creative director of a Los Angeles agency, making astonishing amounts of money by guiding his staff to find the right way to sell chocolate chip cookies.

T, meanwhile, wanders the streets, looking for opportunities, either in the employment or the criminal fields. Their paths meet when, one fateful day, the out-of-sorts Nick has taken a misguided turn off the freeway and finds himself in one of those mean little corners of L.A. that never makes it onto "Entertainment Tonight." The next thing he meets is a snub-nose .357, in his face courtesy of T.

"Boy, did you pick the wrong guy," says Nick.

The reason is that Nick has just bumbled in on his beloved wife (Kelly Preston) in a state of extreme bliss with another man -- his boss (Michael McKean). But it's not Nick's way to bust in and kick butt with both of them. Instead, he jumps in his Rec V and drives insanely through town, nursing the self-pity like a prize rose.

When T's gun muzzle flashes into his face, that's the final point. Declaring himself a nihilist, he stomps on the pedal and dares T to fire. He has nothing to lose. T obliges by fainting dead away. When T wakes up, they're in Arizona.

Thus the movie becomes an account of these two wild guys on the road who find themselves without money (Nick, in an excess of gesture, threw his wallet out the window), having suddenly to fend. The joke is that neither is quite what he seems: T, it turns out, is about 99 percent talk and the other 1 percent pure cowardice; Nick is 100 percent coward, but discovers his own source of resiliency. Ultimately the movie permutes weirdly: They encounter their doppelgangers in the form of Giancarlo Esposito and John T. McGinley, two true born-to-kill losers, and they concoct a caper to liberate them from their fecklessness by robbing Nick's cuckolder-in-chief, his boss -- who, conveniently, keeps his assets liquid in his office safe.

Writer-director Steve Oedekerk neatly keeps these two half-stories in balance, finally combining them. He even provides a little comedy highlight himself as a security guard who yearns to be a dancer and breaks into an enthusiastic but rhythmless secret solo.

The plot is thin, and most of the movie-savvy will figure out the "big twist" about his wife far before Nick does. Worse, it has a couple of rancid scenes where armed robbery is played for laughs, when there's not one funny thing about it. It's an error in judgment "Nothing to Lose" almost can't recover from.

But when Lawrence and Robbins have their mojo working, the movie has rare and powerful comic grace. It may not make you think, but it will certainly make you squeal.

Nothing to Lose is rated R for extreme profanity and a mild sex scene.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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