WARNING: The following review contains spoilers.
The Denominator of Denial
The director of The Whole Nine Yards, Jonathan Lynn, used to specialize in delectable mayhem disguising chilly objectivity, as innocents driven to reluctant guile clash with Machiavellian schemers wearily exploiting human weakness. From the British TV series, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (which he also co-wrote), to his most successful US film, My Cousin Vinnie, Lynn has relished the unending struggle between affable goodness and affectless pathology. The Whole Nine Yards returns to those preoccupations via a hectically plotted script, rich in the bizarre but rigorous logic characteristic of the Cambridge University school of British comedy, and an oddly assorted ensemble cast. But where Lynn once drove ice, he now spoons ice cream.
The film’s plot concerns dentist Nicholas “Oz” Ozeransky (Matthew Perry), who recognizes his new Montreal suburbs next-door neighbor as Jimmy “the Tulip” Tudeski (Bruce Willis), a notorious hit man. Desperate to rid himself of his whining wife and her mother, he accedes reluctantly to sell out Jimmy to his old employer, Janni Gogolak (Kevin Pollack), in return for a finder’s fee that will allow him to afford a divorce. While Oz goes to Chicago to set up the deal, his wife Sophie (Rosanna Arquette) rats the story to Jimmy. This is Sophie’s second attempt at divorce by death, as she’s losing patience with the neophyte hitter she’s already hired. Ordered by his jolly receptionist Jill (Amanda Peet) to “get laid” on his trip, Oz in Chicago meets and falls in love with Jimmy’s estranged wife, Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge), who just happens to tell him the secret to liberating the $10 million dollars her husband and Gogolak crave. Oz also finds himself embroiled in the double-dealing of Gogolak’s employee and Jimmy’s friend, Frankie Figs (Michael Clarke Duncan), and Jimmy’s own plot to collect the cash.
So far, so good. It’s screwball comedy crossed with that particularly British sub-genre, the farce, complete with its stock characters: the sluttish and shrewish older wife, the hostile mother-in-law, the hapless suburban professional, his amoral friend, and the nubile love interest for both. The similarities to this hybrid form continue, as farts, unintentional excretions, and other projectile bodily functions occur. The script furnishes the requisite wit, and Perry’s gift for physical comedy (given far too little scope on Friends) triggers much of the laughter. The pale-faced aplomb of his vomiting after his first encounter with the Gogolak gang, and his frenzied ricocheting between Willis and Duncan before taking quivering refuge behind a spindly floor lamp produce an unexpected emotional richness.
However, in more dramatic scenes, he lacks the robust insouciance of classic comedy performers like Cary Grant or the very different Billy Crystal. Instead of acting nervous, nerdy, and needy, he is nervous, nerdy and needy, physically shrinking into his skin, forgetting that pusillanimity requires more presence than power. Willis smiles and slinks through his role, recalling Robert Mitchum in his sleepy calm, while Henstridge makes a competent stab at a role obviously written for the ghost of Grace Kelly (or surrogate of the moment, Gwyneth Paltrow). Duncan is the sleeper of the cast, turning a muscle-bound role into a touching portrait of misplaced loyalty.
Competent script, competent cast, some heartfelt laughs. Why isn’t the film more likable? Classic British bedroom farce delights audiences first by spiraling a single ill-advised action into an accelerating avalanche of disaster and then reassures by successfully restoring all characters into a carbon-copy of the (heterosexual, monogamous) status quo ante. In the hands of skillful contemporary writers like Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, and Lynn himself (or the troubadour team that produced Monty Python’s Flying Circus), the mechanical resolution allows heartbreak to overshadow its reassurance, if it is not disrupted entirely. The internal logic of the drama overrides the desire to leave an audience content.
In movies, though, when logic of plot and predilections for pat closures clash, plot usually crumbles. The Whole Nine Yards is no exception, though its fantasy ending (the two white male leads paired oh-so-neatly with the two younger, also white, females) plays out in particularly disturbing ways. Michael Clarke Duncan, the only African American actor in the film, exudes as Frankie an impersonal and kindly malevolence which overshadows the slighter Perry and complements Willis’ shorter fuse. But his role in the plot and his eventual fate finger the conservative agenda of the movie’s end.
In his buddy-to-Bruce role, Duncan lingers in the “protective custody” of a white actor (think of Danny Glover with Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies or Jesse L. Martin with Jerry Orbach in the current iteration of TV’s Law and Order team), traditional for strong black actors in mixed race casts. In character, Frankie is subordinate and unflinchingly loyal to his alpha male mate. Racially isolated, he is also dramatically isolated. He not only shapes up early as the person for whom no sexual partner will appear, but he’s also the only “good guy” to die, a casualty of the fickleness of male bonding when it crosses racial lines.
As Cynthia and Jill (now inamorata-elect to Jimmy) clean out the $10 million bank account, Jimmy takes hostage Oz (to ensure Cynthia’s good behavior) not to the safety of the populous art museum but to an isolated boat, aided, as usual, by the ever-helpful Frankie. When Jimmy pulls a gun and threatens to kill Oz, the only hurdle to his life with the lucre, he suddenly and arbitrarily blows the laughing Frankie into the bay. Partnership severed. And for no reason. As if registering this wrenching violence to character and plot, the film doesn’t even try and justify the act, slipping uneasily past with limp physical by-play and cans of beer, themselves symbolic (respective lips to respective cans) of the clinching of a new, and all white, male bond.
In a darkened cinema, hope, alas, triumphs over experience. Lynn had assembled all the ingredients for a stab at subversive closure, and this viewer was fooled for a minute. Jill suggests that the two women run away with the money (plausible and possible by the terms of its release), leaving the men to their games with guns. They consider it. Jimmy could have shot Oz, who actually did little, except gibber and drill to gain a share of the money. Jimmy and Frankie could have sailed into the sunset (okay, I’m a romantic in non-nuclear family terms), poorer, wiser, but knowing more profitable bodies to kill lay over every horizon. A tantalizing thought, but ultimately doomed by the denominator of denial.
The pattern of eliminating difference (from non-ethnic white straightness) runs through the whole film. Although the spattering of ethnic names (Ozeransky, Tudeski) includes the two male leads in melting-pot North America, neither betrays any visible marker of difference. But the accented Sophie and Janni join Frankie Figs in oblivion, leaving $10 million dollars to the cozy suburban foursome. In his earlier work, particularly the two Yes series, Lynn often highlighted the fragility of the status quo and troubled his audiences, even as they laughed, by revealing the pathologies that maintained it. Here he simply endorses it, and them, if they fit, subscribe or aspire to non-difference. Perhaps all audiences need comedy to reassure themselves. Perhaps all audiences need a little wish fulfillment. But when the price is extirpation and erasure, the price is too high.