If you're going to spoof a movie genre, it's probably best to reproduce the old plots and characters and cliches to near-perfection, then give the mannerisms a hard, deviant twist. The keenest humor, after all, always lies close to the truth.
In The Big Squeeze--a mutant take on Forties film noir--writer/director Marcus DeLeon tinkers with a few too many things. His scheming con man, Benny (Peter Dobson), doesn't have real moral rot inside him, just the charm of a cheap playboy working a singles bar--and an actor who seems out of his depth. DeLeon's supposed femme fatale, played by Twin Peaks star Lara Flynn Boyle, has plenty of reason to scam her ex-ballplayer husband out of the big insurance settlement he's been hiding from her, and she's meant to give off real heat, but she reminds you more of perky Mary Poppins than, say, simmering Lizabeth Scott.
"What's a sting?" she asks the knowing Benny, and means it. Meanwhile, the duo's co-conspirator, an artistic Chicano gardener named Jesse (Danny Nucci), is so squeaky-clean and new-agey that when he beds the dame you could practically let the kids watch.
A near miss? Afraid not. More like a wild swing in the dark.
In the most capable hands, "neo-noir" is a tricky business, because the original is so fixed in time and texture. John Dahl pulled the trick off in Red Rock West and his authentically grimy The Last Seduction, and Stephen Frears recaptured the bleak amorality of the double-cross in The Grifters. But by lightening the atmospheric load and eliminating gunplay (come, now: noir with nary a shot fired?) DeLeon has slipped out of the dark danger zone and into the light. That proves fatal, and not very funny.
The irony here is that Squeeze's scam centers on a rebuilding fund at a Catholic mission damaged by an earthquake. Henry Mulhill (Luca Bercovici), the thick-headed husband/victim, goes to the church each day to pray that his busted kneecap will somehow heal and he will finally get his shot at the big leagues. But once his wife discovers that he's salted away $130,000 in insurance money while she's busted her butt working in a bar, some not very convincing larceny fills her heart. Enter the drifter Benny, about the last guy you'd go partners with, and Jesse, the second-to-last. They're unlikely plotters, and Benny's plan--an ersatz "miracle" involving a magnolia tree--is more foolish than satirical. Parody slips too easily between the sheets with contempt.
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Something else, too.
In the midnight realm of film noir, the motivating force has always been greed, not lust, and DeLeon doesn't serve his movie very well by changing up priorities in the Nineties. If, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck had hatched the murder plot in Double Indemnity because she really had the hots for Fred MacMurray, Billy Wilder wouldn't have had much of a picture, would he? Nonetheless, DeLeon keeps assorted bedrooms a-steaming here, and what's worse is that some of these people actually like each other. Henry's bag of money too often seems like an afterthought.
For shame. What The Big Squeeze cries out for in the end is a little less sex and a little more sin, even while we're supposed to be laughing.
The Big Squeeze.
Written and directed by Marcus DeLeon. With Lara Flynn Boyle, Peter Dobson, Luca Bercovici and Danny Nucci.