The Whole Nine Yards (2000)

by Jonathan Beller


WARNING: The following review contains spoilers.

Executing Reality

cover art

The Whole Nine Yards

Director: Jonathan Lynn
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rosanna Arquette, Natasha Henstridge, Amanda Peet, Kevin Pollack

(Warner Bros.)

The poster advertisement for Warner Brothers’ current release, The Whole Nine Yards, reads “Life’s a comedy, it’s all in the execution,” and this masterfully executed comedy, directed by Jonathan Lynn, delivers on that premise. At one point, contract killer Jimmy “the Tulip” Tudeski, played by Bruce Willis, explains the morality governing the film, when he observes, “It’s not how many people I’ve killed, it’s how I get along with the people who are still alive.” This ethical standard, if you can call it that, is also subtexted as the moral paradigm of Hollywood: contract killers, and there are several in this film, are explicitly likened to celebrities; they have a fan base and act as role models for the kids. Furthermore, the saliency of Jimmy’s aphorism is implicitly valorized by us viewers each time we laugh. We get to laugh as nice people make others die.

Don’t get me wrong, part of me liked this film, but it is probably the evil white male heterosexual American capitalist murderer fascist in me who laughed the hardest. The film’s level of craft, that is, of execution, is very high. Matthew Perry, as a dentist named “Oz” Oseransky, is hilarious and precise in his histrionics. Willis is by turns warm and emotionally blank. The whole thing is extremely well put together, meaning that, in some scenes — such as one featuring Oz, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s assassin buddy Frankie Figs (Michael Clarke Duncan) sitting down to a hamburger dinner in a jazz club — the picture moves like music, mixing tune, dialogue, shot-countershot, and physical comedy in a rhythmic pulse that’s smooth as butter and satisfying as cream. For much of the film, we are in the seamless plenitude of top-tier Hollywood cinema. Mitchell Kapner’s script is also very well-crafted, opening up a whole universe of complications and untangling them through appropriate and careful execution, or rather, executions.

As it turns out, well-planned and well-executed executions are precisely the vehicle for resolving narrative complications of any sort. The Whole Nine Yards seems to suggest that the efficient elimination of problems in the form of persons is, if not utterly acceptable and indeed desirable, then at least eminently practical when it comes to romance and money. Of course Romance and Money are themes near and dear to the heart of Hollywood. If we think of Hollywood and the media industry in general as a killing machine which gives pleasure to viewers and profit to investors, then we will be a little closer to grasping the deeper connections between the narrative structure of The Whole Nine Yards and the dominant logic of mass media.

To take this analysis a little further, let’s see who The Whole Nine Yards puts six feet under. First, the unattractive undercover cop, the unattractive mobster with a speech impediment and his unattractive henchmen are killed. Then the slutty wife and the nagging mother-in-law are eliminated — not exactly killed but imprisoned for, of all things, putting out a contract on Oz. Finally, there is Frankie Figs, yet another intimidating but loyal African American sidekick who, in two seconds flat, goes from smiling at his dominant partner Jimmy to being shot, killed and over the side of a boat. Jimmy explains his summary execution of Frankie as the triumph of his feelings for Oz, and by extension for love and money. Jimmy and Oz divide up the 10,000,000 dollars and the pretty white girls, while the ugly guys are buried or incinerated, the loose and nagging women are jailed and Frankie Figs sinks to the bottom of the sea. If we wanted to add an aphorism to Jimmy’s, we might say, if you get in the way of or are not sexually eligible for white homosocial romance, its curtains for you.

I’ll leave it to the reader to make the finer connections between the structure of feeling allowing The Whole Nine Yards to work as a comedy and allowing white homophobic patriarchal society to work as a force of oppressive and oftentimes murderous domination. The immediate challenge would be to see how the extraordinary craft of The Whole Nine Yards connects to its seamless production of audience as participant in the ideological and emotive vectors which foster imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The next level of analysis would be to begin to imagine what could be the motives, unconscious or otherwise, of both the film’s creators and of the industry in general, in making such hilarious, pernicious, and profitable films. And last, but not least, readers may want to consider the significance and complexity of their own relation to such films — a consideration which could well turn readers into writers.

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