If it wasn't for films like "Clay Pigeons," how would we know that, in the America of the late '90s, psychopathic killers and sexual monsters are hiding around every corner just waiting for their chance to ruin our lives? It's the only social theory at work in director David Dobkin's intermittently entertaining -- but pointless -- first feature. Identify with hero Clay Tidwell (Joaquin Phoenix) at your own risk, as a fling with his best friend's wife leads to an orgy of murder and mayhem.
The first victim is his distraught buddy Earl (Gregory Sporleder), who commits suicide after learning of the affair in a manner sure to implicate his deceptive pal. No help comes from the woman in question, Amanda (Georgina Cates), who isn't about to have her shaky reputation further besmirched by an admission of adultery. She remains enough of an insane, lustful harpy to become enraged when Clay rebuffs her further advances, eventually unloading a round of ammo into the back of a waitress he's just bedded. Worse, the corpses of more women surface in his hometown of Mercer, Montana. Clay can't prove his innocence to the police without revealing his role in the tawdriness that spurred the first blasts of violence.
In walks Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), a bumpkin of a drifter whom we recognize as the dime-store Elvis we try to avoid at truck stops and barbecues, but whose cornpone demeanor grows more likable the longer we're forced to put up with him. Lester at first provides comic relief for the stress-afflicted Clay, but it soon becomes apparent that his boyish grin masks a secret worse than anything that's thus far transpired.
Until recently, Vaughn seemed one of the most overrated new talents in cinema, but his charm here is undeniable. He does have trouble conveying the character's unfolding dark side. Perhaps it's just bad direction, but he sheds no light on what we can expect from his performance as Norman Bates in Gus van Sant's upcoming remake of "Psycho."
Janeane Garofalo is more than adequate as an FBI agent called in to solve the whole mess. After a while we realize we're judging her believability not according to reality, but on the portrayals of lady lawmen we've seen in other films and on TV. We've sunk so low that we only see these characters in the realm of two-dimensionality, not flesh-and-blood truth. At least Vaughn has some fun with his.