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'Clay Pigeons': Offbeat, On Target

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 1998


Clay Pigeons Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix don't quite have both oars in the water in "Clay Pigeons." (Gramercy)

David Dobkin
Vince Vaughn;
Joaquin Phoenix;
Janeane Garofalo;
Georgina Cates;
Phil Morris;
Scott Wilson;
Vince Vieluf
Running Time:
1 hour, 44 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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With his dark, deep-set eyes and dubious stare, his scarred upper lip and lank, greasy mop of hair, Joaquin Phoenix is an odd choice to star in a comedy.

But then again, "Clay Pigeons" is a very odd – and actually rather funny – comedy. Not laugh-out-loud, ha-ha funny so much as smile-on-the-inside, weird funny, the feature debut from director David Dobkin and writer Matt Healy satisfies primarily because it goes against the grain.

As it opens, Montana buddies Clay (Phoenix) and Earl (Gregory Sporleder) are shooting at beer bottles (only as fast as they are drinking them) on an empty mountaintop. Out of the blue, Earl takes aim at Clay, angrily accusing him of sleeping with his wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates).

Clay is nervous; he is afraid; he sputters. First he denies it (badly), then admits that Amanda has been cheating on Earl with him, then he begs for his life.

Then Earl turns the gun on himself and blows his brains out. (Only thing is, it's Clay's gun, Clay's fingerprints all over it.)

Nice frame-up, Earl.

Back, in town, Amanda convinces the dull Clay that no one will believe his story, so back up the mountain he goes to dispose of the incriminating evidence in a dark slapstick turn that is reminiscent of "Weekend at Bernie's," only this time – thank God – the dead-body joke doesn't go on for 90 minutes. Poor, slow-witted Clay. His problems are only beginning, as more and more cadavers start turning up after the discovery of Earl's by local sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson), and Clay seems to have had something to do with all of them. Making matters worse is the appearance of Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), a new drinking and fishing buddy of Clay's with a cheesy cowboy accent and irritating laugh that evokes Jim Varney as Ernest P. Worrell. Lester also has the nasty and annoying habit of disappearing whenever his presence might get Clay off the hook.

Upon this fine mess shines Janeane Garofalo like a ray of sarcastic sunlight as FBI agent Shelby. Along with her laconic partner, Reynard (Phil Morris), the acid-tongued federal investigator has been brought in to assist Mooney, who seems to be the only person left alive who believes in Clay's innocence. With her gift for sweet bile, the sardonic Garofalo makes every second on screen a treasure to be cherished.

"Could you not poke the body with a stick, please," she deadpans to the unfortunately named Deputy Barney (Vince Vieluf).

Garofalo is not the only surprising – and surprisingly right – casting choice. As the oily Lester, Vaughn oozes the glib charm of the psychopath, and the impossibly vampish Cates, writhing and purring like a sack of flesh-colored Flubber, is deliriously over the top.

As Clay, Phoenix may manifest every so often a glimmer of intelligence that even his Neanderthal eyebrows can't hide, but that speaks less to the problematic nature of his casting than to the age-old truism that some people are simply not as dumb as they look.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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