Falling up

What must those poor guys in Insane Clown Posse be thinking? After all, the sad white rap act only made a record that included profanity, and still they got drop-kicked off a panicky Disney-owned Hollywood Records, a label whose greatest catalog asset is Queen. Martin Lawrence, on the other hand, got arrested for brandishing a gun at a car wash--and the Disney-owned Touchstone still releases his new movie, Nothing to Lose, with an enormous amount of hype. Those Disney guys are goofy--and not just in some trademarked sense either. And we call ourselves insane, the Posse must be muttering to themselves as they count up the pile of dough they surely received from one of Hollywood's warmer traditions, the contract settlement.

Nothing to Lose teams Lawrence, the original star of Def Comedy Jam and onetime proud owner of his own Fox show, with Tim Robbins, the star of Bull Durham and director of Dead Man Walking. So if nothing else, it will grab attention for the oddest grouping of talents since, well, last month, when Batman & Robin was released. And Nothing to Lose is a better picture, although it'd be hard to be worse.

This is the kind of picture Disney would have cranked out five years ago, with Jim Belushi in one of the leads; perhaps someone has to be given credit for a cultural evolution of a sort. One of those fish-out-of-water contrivances that virtually was a Disney stock in trade a few years back, Nothing to Lose generates a kind of nostalgia for a period nobody really misses--a time when Hollywood was into making films about comfortable suburbanites jostled from their sleepwalking existences. (Keep in mind, you probably don't know anyone who saw those Jim Belushi pictures--Taking Care of Business, Mr. Destiny--unless they caught them either on Showtime or one of those simultaneous movie theater/airline releases.)

Nothing to Lose stars Robbins as Nick Beam, a guy who, after years of marriage, still coos sweetly to his shiny-eyed wife, Ann (Kelly Preston). On the way home from his pressure-free ad agency job, he stops to order one of the constant bouquets of flowers he buys for her--only to arrive home and discover his wife in bed with his crass, self-absorbed boss (played by Michael McKean, Laverne and Shirley's Lenny). While driving aimlessly through the desert in the throes of a leviathan-sized depression, he's carjacked by T. Paul (Lawrence), a nervous thug who seems to be waving a gun bigger than he is. But a frayed-to-the-bone Nick winds up kidnapping T. Paul, holding him hostage, and, finally, bringing him back to L.A.--where, Nick hopes, they'll exact a little payback.

Robbins' high forehead and dimpled baby face are a con artist's dream, because they perpetually distract from his gifts as an actor; he's got a certain slyness about him--there's always something furtive about him, some reserve that's banked. Even in a programmer such as this, he brings that sneakiness to bear, and he comes off as nothing so much as a suicidal spoiled brat whose appearance belies the fact that he simply doesn't care about himself anymore. Robbins' craftiness provides Lawrence a chance to deliver as a comic actor. He is likable simply because of his small man's bluster, talking up a challenge he's never quite up to. When the two of them, cranky and alienated from the world, gripe at each other, they're funnier than the picture has a right to be; they actually manage to create movie-star chemistry that exceeds mere buddy-picture cliche.

To that end, Oliver Stone veteran John C. McGinley (playing David "Rig" Lanlow) and Spike Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito (as Charlie Dunt) turn up as fairly well-adjusted small-time stick-up men who act as mirror images of Lawrence and Robbins, and writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) rather smartly uses them as the butt of a joke involving mistaken identity. Oedekerk also scores during a scene in which Nick and T. Paul run into Rig and Charlie; Rig jams a gun into Nick's apple cheeks, and Nick leans into it, daring the thief to pull the trigger--in fact, Nick seems to hope he will. It's a rare, chilling moment that makes you think you're at a real movie...for a moment.

But mostly, Nothing to Lose settles in for an easy sentimentality that lessens its few happy shocks. We learn T. Paul is only pulling stick-up bids because he's a talented electronics whiz and devoted family man who can't get work; no one takes his correspondent-course degree seriously. I guess maybe we should give points to a movie that bothers to depict a loving home life for an African-American man, since they're about as rare as a month without Lawrence being brought up on a concealed-weapons charge. And maybe Nothing to Lose isn't without its laughs, but its small triumph--that it's not nearly as annoying as you think it's going to be--is hardly a victory.

Nothing to Lose.
Martin Lawrence, Tim Robbins, John C. McGinley, Giancarlo Esposito, Kelly Preston. Written and directed by Steve Oedekerk. Opens Friday.


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