There is plenty of dumb stuff in "Wise Guys," a rambunctious comedy about two screwballs on the loose, probably more than anyone should stand for. But the doughty will stick around for its small pleasures, most of which spring from the lens of Brian De Palma -- yes, that Brian De Palma, the sanguinary scourge of women everywhere, who seems to have gotten into this as something of a lark.
The story involves a pair of losers, Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo), small-time mobsters in a smaller-time (Newark) mob. Sent to place a bet on a horse that's 25 to 1, Harry has a brilliant idea: bet on another horse, a 5 to 1 sure thing, and pocket the dough.
Guess which horse wins.
For the rest of "Wise Guys," we watch as Harry and Moe are pursued to Atlantic City by the rest of the mob, including murderous Frankie the Fixer (Captain Lou Albano). As engineered by screen writer George Gallo, the story has no surprises and little wit -- there are, for example, a number of laborious puns on Moe's last name, which is Dickstein, and a lot of borsch belt stuff: "You're a compulsive gambler." "Wanna bet?" And while De Palma has assembled a terrific supporting cast, including Dan Hedaya, Harvey Keitel, Patti LuPone and Ray Sharkey, Gallo hardly gives them anything to do. He hasn't mastered the trick of giving the minor characters a little niche, of creating a three-dimensional world.
Most of the "comedy" of "Wise Guys" consists of the team of Piscopo and DeVito, who will not make anyone forget Laurel and Hardy or even Mutt and Jeff, hollering at each other in a "how do I let you get me into these messes?" vein. While DeVito, a tiny actor with big, expressive features, grows into the role -- his usual aggressiveness seems less frantic, more confident than it is in his supporting roles -- Piscopo mugs meekly. He plays the straight man as a sweet dope and ends up watering everything down.
Most of what's left rests on pro wrestling icon Albano. In the two-minute bursts of a ringside interview, Albano has been inspired, a madman with rubber bands dangling from safety pins stuck in his face and about 10 square yards of Hawaiian shirt (one of the movie's De Palmiest touches is a shot of Albano in bed, stripped to the waist, looking like a barrack's worth of blancmange).
But Albano doesn't modulate at all -- he's at his growliest fever pitch from the minute we meet him, and soon enough, he's got the charm of a bad muffler. That's part of the problem with "Wise Guys" as a whole -- De Palma, who is a master of suspense pacing, never finds the pulse of "Wise Guys." Maybe it's just too conventional for him.
What he offers, though, is a familiarity with the milieu that sometimes has you laughing, even when you don't know why (as Harry's grandmother, an actress named Mimi Cecchini doesn't do anything funny -- she's just funny). And there is, of course, the perpetual beauty of his images -- the luxurious gliding camera, the quick 180-degree pans, the intricate choreography of high and low angles, of foreground and background.
The movie is at its best when De Palma adapts his suspense technique to lampoon. DeVito goes out to start the boss' car -- no safe task in this milieu. The camera isolates him -- he's alone with some horrible fate. As passers-by realize what's up, they panic in pixilated motion, while the camera pans 360 degrees around DeVito; as the score gets nerve-racking, De Palma alternates high and low angles of DeVito. He subtly blends suspense into the sense of anticipation you feel when you're waiting for a punch line, and adds a dose of self-parody to boot. It's a classic comedy sequence.
But if the movie is beautifully shot (by De Palma and his cinematographer, Fred Schuler), comedies, most of all genres, are script-driven, which leaves "Wise Guys" rather driverless. And the project is somewhat curious for De Palma, given that he's already, with "Scarface," made what is, at least in part, the funniest satire yet of "The Godfather." "Wise Guys" is a satire of "The Godfather," too, but softer and goofier. De Palma's pastiche inevitably crosses over into humor, even when he's making thrillers. But his natural humor is arch and bizarre, and he likes to goad you; this movie is way too genial for him.
Wise Guys, at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity and violence.