John Hamburg's independent comedy Safe Men, which got a look and a distributor at Sundance, trades on one of the oldest comic devices in moviedom: Innocence collides with corruption and changes both of them for the better. From the great silent comedian Harry Langdon, who made a high art of blithe infantilism, to frantic Jerry Lewis and apoplectic Jim Carrey, who made a noisy spectacle of it, we have encountered the fool who gives a good name to folly.
Alas, that doesn't always happen. Here we are confronted (and that is the word, I'm afraid) by a couple of sickeningly sweet dopes named Sam and Eddie (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn), who mistakenly believe they are the second coming of Simon and Garfunkel. For five years these out-of-it buddies have been putting on matching plaid shirts and red sweaters and assaulting the tender ears of Providence, Rhode Island, with a mixture of bravado and sonic incompetence. Playing the local Polish club, they induce the old folks to snooze or to stare glumly into their beer glasses. Apparently blind and deaf, Sam and Eddie bellow on.
In Hamburg's view, these are just the fellows to be mistaken for Providence's most expert safecrackers. The guy who does the mistaking is a mob gofer named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), and the guy to whom he reports the misinformation is the local Jewish crime boss, Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner). Of course, Sam and Eddie know nothing about safecracking, but the show must go on: Once in Big Fat's clutches, they are forced to larceny.
"But you and I are pussies," Eddie moans to Sam. Indeed, Hamburg's unlikely (and not very likable) heroes are quivering piles of neuroses--but unrelieved by the wit a Woody Allen would impart. In the general manner of, say, Pulp Fiction, they tell extended stories about left-field subjects like the fraud of shrimp cocktail--but they lack the Tarantino edginess. Like the sublime, cross-dressing heroes of Some Like It Hot, they are goofballs whose phony identities have been thrust upon them--but there's none of Billy Wilder's subversive playfulness.
Might just as well let Sam and Eddie sing.
Ah, but Safe Men has its several rays of sunshine. The pleasures of this hit-and-miss farce lie not in the lukewarm bumblings and buffooneries of the nearly genderless heroes, whose amorphous faces you are unlikely to remember ten minutes after leaving the theater, but in the full-throttle, ham-powered burlesque of old hands Lerner and Harvey Fierstein. As Big Fat and a fence called Good Stuff Leo, underworld caricatures as broad as anything Damon Runyan cooked up in his day, they put a charge into this otherwise weak-kneed comedy every time they pop onto the screen.
Stuffed into a designer warmup suit and serviced by a Rolfer, Bernie goes about his nefarious business with gusto and dotes on his hockey-loving teenage son, Little Big Fat Bernie Jr. (Michael Schmidt), with a mad devotion. Jovial family man, jokester and ruthless hood, he's exactly the sort of inspiration that might have enlivened the current Godfather parody, Mafia! As for Fierstein, the Tony-winning playwright, actor and gay activist, Hamburg's decision to cast him against type as a devoted father who runs a major stolen goods operation out of the back of a barber shop may be the best thing about this mediocre movie. With his smoke-cured voice and pencil-line mustache, Fierstein's Leo is a comic creation worthy of the classics, and his story about filching a shipment of flammable slacks may be Safe Men's high point.
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The hazards of ethnic stereotyping aside, Bernie Jr.'s climactic bar mitzvah party, at which the baffled boy ascends through the floorboards on a turntable, finishes second. But the less said the better about the mindless romance between Sam the singer/safecracker and Good Stuff Leo's daughter Hannah (Christina Kirk) or about the presence of the real safecrackers (Mark Ruffalo and Josh Pais), who prove to be just as lame as the principals. Rockwell is an indie-movie stalwart who's recently appeared in Lawn Dogs and Box of Moonlight; Zahn starred in Tom Hanks's clunky directorial debut That Thing You Do! and Richard Linklater's Suburbia. Both of them, you suspect, will move on from this misstep with relative ease.
A final note: In the Irish crime farce I Went Down, which had a shorter Denver run than it deserved, two vivid innocents sent off on a fool's errand by a Dublin gangster win the audience's affections as they run afoul of absurdity. It does almost everything Hamburg's movie fails to do: Catch it on tape.
Written and directed by John Hamburg. With Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Michael Lerner, Harvey Fierstein, Christina Kirk and Paul Giamatti.