- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

"Who Is Cletis Tout?" could turn up as a trivia question in future quizzes about the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Christian Slater, Tim Allen, Billy Connolly and who knows? maybe even Portia de Rossi. Apart from that contingency, there's no reason to commit it to memory or fret about the answer.

The guiding tease, a novice writer-director named Chris Ver Wiel, attempts to sustain his plot, a convoluted and tedious caper melodrama framed mostly in flashback, without making a big mystery of the Tout ID. It's pronounced "tout" rather than "too," incidentally. A phantom mercenary among the ranks of paparazzi, Tout once angered mobsters for catching a certain indiscretion on video. This exploit landed him on a hit list, and he dropped out of sight.

An escaped forger named Finch, played by Mr. Slater, ends up with the Tout handle when seeking to cover his tracks. The notorious nature of the name triggers a renewed mob manhunt and places Finch at the mercy of Mr. Allen as a contract killer known as Critical Jim. The running time supposedly corresponds to the 1-1/2; hours in which Finch tries to explain his situation to Jim while held captive in a hotel room.

Ostensibly, Jim is awaiting confirmation that his fee has been deposited in the proper account before executing Finch. Inevitably, the Scheherazade effect kicks in. Jim, who loves old movies and despairs of the decline of storytelling finesse in new ones, becomes so intrigued by Finch's life-or-death pitch that he becomes an enabler and protector.

Unfortunately for this droll outline, the Finch story suffers from the sort of rattletrap baggage and wrongheaded trickiness that tend to collect around contemporary movies, further enhancing one's esteem for cleverly contrived classics.

Finch's escape from prison has been engineered with an older con named Micah Donnelly, played by Mr. Dreyfuss. A magician-jewel thief, Micah is serving time for a daring diamond heist that left him at large long enough to bury the loot. So many years have passed that his adoring little girl, Tess, has grown into an adult ingenue, played by Miss de Rossi. Micah has decided to shorten the interval between his eventual reunion with both Tess and the hidden gems.

At this point, the flashback account seems to be heading for a three-felons-on-the-road setup that will come up roses for Finch, Micah and Tess. Then the filmmaker springs his dumbest surprise: Suddenly Mr. Dreyfuss is gone from the picture, leaving the ensemble short of what would seem to be an indispensable comic resource. It comes as a shock to find even elder-statesman duty yanked out from under Mr. Dreyfuss. You wonder why he bothered to take the part. It must be the most negligible movie role he has been offered in almost 30 years.

Mr. Ver Wiel can't seem to get a sorrowful but compensatory romance under way between Finch and Tess, always a problematical love match. He does provide a useful demonstration of how to belabor a task that ought to be frivolous fun: infiltrating the location where the treasure is buried. An elaborate hoax must be improvised and concealed by an elaborate gardening project. In the meantime, the loss of Mr. Dreyfuss still seems such a blunder that diamond retrieval, especially piecemeal and far-fetched diamond retrieval, aggravates the loss.

Critical Jim's devotion to the movies is a booby trap for movie fans. The character is introduced getting misty-eyed in the balcony of a revival house during the finale of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Several other evocations are calculated to get "Cletis Tout" off the hook by calling attention to far, far better pictures, although often in shabby-looking copies or TV transfers. This sort of luster by association can be as disreputable as guilt by association. Would Chris Ver Wiel be able to function without it? I suppose it will take another movie project to find out, but "Cletis Tout" does not inspire confidence.


*

TITLE: "Who Is Cletis Tout?

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Chris Ver Wiel. Cinematography by Jerzy Zielinski. Production design by Charles Rosen. Costume design by Betsy Cox. Music by Randy Edelman

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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