You need to see "Who Is Cletis Tout?" for its opening credits. Big, colorful graphics dart furtively over an insistent spy-surf soundtrack, in the best Pink Panther knockoff since "Ruthless People." As soon as the names stop running, though, duck into a neighboring theater and watch "Road to Perdition" again. Because nothing else in "Tout" is worth paying money for.
I mean, why sit through a crummy, wannabe-hip crime comedy that refers incessantly to old movies, when you could just rent those movies instead, let alone seek out a respectable new one? From "Tout's" insufferable framing sequences -- which see a garrulous hit man (Tim Allen) subjecting his kidnap victim (Christian Slater) to ceaseless opinions about classic cinema -- all we get is a self-justifying shrug of a film whose incurable addiction to cutesy-poo name-dropping represents the mere outer layer of its shortcomings.
"Tout" is told as a series of flashbacks, in which Slater's Trevor Finch explains how he came to be Jim's prisoner. Once a convict, Finch conducted a daring prison break in the company of a master jewel thief (Richard Dreyfuss) who had millions of dollars' worth of hidden gems to offer as incentive. On the outside, the two fugitives procured new identities for themselves, with Finch taking on the I.D. of one Cletis Tout. Trouble was, the real Cletis was a bottom-feeding blackmailer who had run afoul of the mob, and assuming his persona made Finch the de facto target of their lethal vengeance.
The latter half of the film recounts the nauseating romance that unfolded between Finch and the thief's daughter, Tess (Portia de Rossi), as they pursued Daddy's, um, jewels -- and a mysterious, secondary treasure, the true nature of which the average viewer will divine by minute No. 10 of the film. As shown here, the Finch-Tess relationship basically consists of them hurling inane insults at each other until Cupid rears his ugly arrow. Though their scenes together are few, De Rossi and Slater are shoo-ins to win Worst Romantic Couple in this year's Razzies.
Not that the surrounding activity is much better. Dreyfuss, bless him, treats the material with more emotional honesty than it deserves, but Allen -- well, let's just say that he does not have a second career waiting within the guns-and-gags environs of indiedom. The mostly atrocious acting rests on a foundation of poor casting choices, including RuPaul as Tout's hot-to-trot neighbor and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as a forensic pathologist. Yes, really.
The plotting requires us to repeatedly leap across entire caverns of faith, and the presence of "True Romance" vet Slater cements the obvious influence of Tarantino on the script's in-joking. If the end product seems less than daring, it could be because Romance is closing in on a decade old. But even in 1993, "Tout's" dialogue would have qualified as cringe-worthy: "You got a paper trail Helen Keller could follow," one crook scolds another.
Not only does "Tout" appropriate images and ideas from Hollywood's book of memories, it places them in a context in which they often don't even work: The sweeping orchestral score, which is meant to convey late-show grandeur, seems better suited to "Big River" than a crime caper. Debut director/screenwriter Chris Ver Wiel drops copious name-checks to "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Dirty Dozen" and "Singin' in the Rain," but the one debt he doesn't acknowledge is to "Interview With the Vampire," which was also structured as an extended conversation with Slater as a participant. This time, however, we learn that said actor can be boring as all hell when telling a story, as opposed to merely listening. The character of Critical Jim, meanwhile, is an overt gibe at movie reviewers, which is a dangerous fight for a film this defenseless to pick.
One star for the credits. Half a star for Dreyfuss, who makes his small role an oasis of credibility, then exits the picture before he can start acting like Richard Dreyfuss. And half a star for the scene in which Allen points out how much Slater sounds like Jack Nicholson. You think?
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