- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Dana Carvey's return to movie farce as "The Master of Disguise" after an eight-year absence strikes me as one of the happiest aspects of the summer movie season. Indeed, as a source of fitful but distinctive and giddy comic pleasure, this introduction to a goof named Pistachio Disguisey (a long "e" on the last syllable, please) is rivaled only by the parodistic freshness and sassiness of Malcolm Lee's "Undercover Brother."

Either movie figured to benefit from the sort of deference that only comes with presold success, a great unmerited advantage in recent weeks to comedies as slapdash and uninspired as "Men in Black II" and "Austin Powers in Goldmember." All the benefits of the doubt tilt in their direction, so "The Master of Disguise," a hit-and-miss sleeper at best, may be in trouble if a similar generosity is denied Mr. Carvey.

His new movie suffers repeated lapses of execution and follow-through, anticipating a really bizarre breakdown at the fade-out. You can't help but surmise that the star lacks either the authority or the judgment necessary to protect himself from mismanagement. An exceptionally fertile comic imagination has envisioned a potentially sumptuous comic spectacle, but scenes are botched as often as they're realized. The end-credits sequence, appended to a movie that runs less than 80 minutes, incorporates bits from scenes that were never even hinted at while the plot was unfolding.

When Mr. Carvey is working well, "The Master of Disguise" is sublimely funny. Consider his Indian fakir, who charms a cobra so confidently that the reptile begins to resemble a purring kitty and begs for nibbles from a piece of cheese, or the cherry pie man who can deflect pursuers by spraying them with excess pellets from his cherry-rich body covering.

Best of all, there's a Carvey parody of Robert Shaw as Quint, the shark hunter of "Jaws," that approaches some rare state of humorous ecstasy. The comedian seems so far inside an impersonation that he's more Quint than the originator himself. It's enough to make you wish "The Master of Disguise" could morph into a parody of "Jaws" for the duration.

Movie nuts and children may be the best public for Mr. Carvey. Both could emerge with some reliable catchphrases. The justification for the gallery of characters is a family heritage of masquerade, not a bad pretext for a gifted mimic.

Pistachio is an Italian-American innocent, the son of an immigrant restaurateur named Fabbrizio (James Brolin) and his doting Irish spouse (Edie McClurg). Although Mr. Brolin and Miss McClurg are unable to reinforce one's sense of a fabulous mismatch because they lack obligatory scenes together, Papa and Mama are simultaneously kidnapped, and it becomes the ill-prepared Pistachio's task to rescue them.

The mission obliges him to become apprentice to his paternal grandfather, a formidable crank as embodied by Harold Gould. The Disguisey heritage, concealed by Fabbrizio, who craved a normal life, is revealed to Pistachio. Rather like Harry Potter being tutored in wizardry, Pistachio is tutored in the family affinity for changing appearances and identities.

It is a deceptive resource meant to be used only "for the betterment of mankind." In this case, Pistachio needs to master it just enough to foil a greedy criminal named Bowman, played by Brent Spiner, who exploits the abducted Fabbrizio in order to stage outrageous robberies of precious objects.

The movie would be in stout condition if the Pistachio learning process were handled so effectively that we could savor each new lesson and then enjoy its eventual application when the hero is in the field. Unfortunately, pretty much everything in "The Master of Disguise" is established in an insecure rush and then reiterated with discouraging inconsistency.

You're not sure why certain things are even tolerated, such as a waiter who likes to bully Pistachio while working for Pistachio's family? Other things that obviously need attention remain sorely neglected, including a romance between Pistachio and a girl Friday named Jennifer, a single mother played by Jennifer Esposito.

Farce may be better constituted to withstand hit-and-miss execution than other genres. Compare Steven Soderbergh's inside-Hollywood joke "Full Frontal," which also is a shambles and has no funny episodes to compensate. Dana Carvey certainly needs and deserves a better support mechanism than you'll find in "The Master of Disguise," but the premise itself is a gem waiting for somebody to polish it properly, and the performer is a delight to watch when nailing the disguises that really suit him.


TITLE: "The Master of Disguise"

RATING: PG (Fleeting slapstick vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Perry Andelin Blake. Written by Dana Carvey and Harris Goldberg. Executive producers, Adam Sandler and Jack Giarraputo.

RUNNING TIME: About 75 minutes

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