It's not exactly a good sign when a movie starring Tim Allen, Christian Slater and Richard Dreyfuss gets dumped into one or two art-house theaters after a couple of years on the shelf. Even if none of them is a guaranteed box-office draw, you'd think all three should be enough to garner a wide release. Not this time. Who Is Cletis Tout? is bound for box-office oblivion.
As with his Toy Story pal Sheriff Woody, Tim Allen undoubtedly figured that playing a hit man would expand his range and break him out of the "tool man" rut. Like his buddy Tom Hanks, however, Allen's not entirely brave enough to go all out, so he plays a hit man with a heart, a good guy stuck in a dirty job, this time going by the name Critical Jim--not because his victims end up in critical condition, but rather because he fancies himself a film critic. Allen spouts film quotes and dates like wrestling weirdo Goldust and randomly varies the volume of his voice like Adam West in his heyday, all the while demonstrating the cinematic critical acumen of Larry King (he crucially misunderstands the three-act structure, and it isn't clear if this is an intentional gag or not).
The framing device of the movie sees Allen lording it over a bound and gagged Christian Slater while urging him at gunpoint to tell his story as though it were a movie pitch. Much like John Travolta in Swordfish, this gives Allen the opportunity to critique Hollywood ("Concentrate on the gimmick, and you shortchange the ending") while leaving the movie wide-open to ironic attacks from real critics. Unlike in Swordfish, though, there are no cool bullet-time effects or (Halle) Berry breasts to distract us. Though it may be obvious to say so, this movie is all gimmick--Slater's "pitch" unfolds in real time over the next 90 minutes. But it's barely a movie: Who Is Cletis Tout? feels like an extended improv class sketch, where nothing follows from the action that preceded it, but rather from some outlandish coincidence, a fragile framework on which to hang broad, mildly fleshed-out characters that seem to have been conjured up only 10 minutes prior to filming.
In a flashback sequence overburdened with insufferable music, we learn that a mime named Micah Tobias (Robin Williams look-alike Tim Progosh) robbed a bank in 1977 and buried the diamonds while his young daughter looked on. Flash forward to the present, and Micah is still behind bars, having improbably aged into Richard Dreyfuss and befriended cyber-crook Finch (Slater). The two escape from jail using the most ridiculous scheme ever--one that requires a fully functional movie camera--hop on a train that conveniently runs right beside the prison and reunite with Tobias' now-grown daughter (Portia de Rossi, clearly cast solely because of her looks) to regain the loot. In what seems like a simple step, Finch uses his talents to create false identities culled from bodies found at the morgue; one he appropriates is the titular Cletis Tout. Too bad this Cletis is no slack-jawed yokel, but rather a sleazy tabloid journalist who has a videotape of a gangland golden boy murdering a hooker and thereby a major price on his head.
Writer-director Chris Ver Wiel (Waiting Game) draws from many references--in addition to the numerous blatant movie cribs by Allen's character, the film features Forrest Gump's feather fetish, Blue Streak's premise (long-lost loot buried beneath a newly constructed building) and a Tarantino-like obsession with hit men discussing pop culture. What it lacks are solid performances, save Slater's game attempt to take everything seriously. Allen has long had the potential for a darker edge, but Ver Wiel has no idea how to bring it out: The one scene in which Allen gets to go nuts is a silly scene in which he forces taggers to spray-paint themselves (he does, however, get the film's sole good line when he explicitly compares Finch to Jack Nicholson). De Rossi is an extraordinarily weak leading lady, standing out as a vain actress rather than a character, but what else would one expect from the woman formerly known as Amanda Lee Rogers? The movie's technically shaky as well--the color timing and sound editing were horribly off at the press screening, though one hopes this may be fixed by release day. Doubt it.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.