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‘Twenty Bucks’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 22, 1994

Though its script sat on the late screenwriter Endre Bohem's shelf for almost 60 years, "Twenty Bucks" has not only retained its values but increased in currency. This blithely offbeat movie reminds the materialistically minded that money makes the world go round but the best things in life -- lots of them, anyway -- are still free.

"Twenty Bucks," which was dusted off and rewritten by Bohem's son, Leslie, is the biography of a $20 bill from its delivery via automated teller to its final hours before shredding. The device allows the film to visit the lives of dozens of characters who pocket, spend or covet the moolah in a clever series of interlooping plot lines. Of course, the bill is like the monkey's paw: It always buys more than was bargained for.

The bill begins its journey through the streets of downtown Minneapolis when it slips from a busy mother's grasp and, caught on a gust of wind, sails off into traffic. Still crisp if a bit grimy, the greenback is grabbed by a bag lady (Linda Hunt), who's decided to stake it all on the lottery when it is snatched by a skateboarder, who trades the dough for pastries.

The bill next falls into the hands of a wealthy Arab American (George Morfogen), who makes a symbolic wedding gift of the money to Sam, his future son-in-law (Brendan Fraser). Misunderstanding the gesture, Sam tucks the stingy gift in a stripper's (Melora Walters) G-string at his bachelor party. This leads to a broken engagement and later a new relationship when Sam's path finally crosses that of Emily (Elisabeth Shue), a waitress who writes in her spare time.

Emily works at a coffee shop that proves a crossroads for the increasingly crumpled title character, which has come into the possession of a grandmother (singer Gladys Knight) who turns it into a birthday gift for her grandson (Kamal Holloway). The teenage boy, who dreams of becoming a TV chef someday, uses it to buy white wine for his birthday cassoulet. That's how it falls into the hands of a ruthless but polite armed robber (Christopher Lloyd) and his twitchy protege (Steve Buscemi).

The buck doesn't stop there, but continues to serve variously as a bookmark, a coaster and a trophy at a kiddie fishing contest. Though covered in coffee, blood and fish slime and signed with words of love, it's still as valuable as ever. Value, however, is a personal thing: One man's piece of America is another man's coaster.

"Twenty Bucks" has the potential to become condescending, contrived or both, but thanks to director Keva Rosenfeld, a documentary filmmaker in his feature debut, its story seems to come about serendipitously. The film's pace, bouncy as Lotto balls in a tank, adds to the lightheartedness of this surprisingly droll look at the cost of living.

"Twenty Bucks" is rated R for nudity and violence.

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