Film and TV

Blue in the Face

Lo and behold the plight of the American gangster. John Gotti, the Dapper Don, has been sent down the river. His big-time heavy, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, is famous and face-lifted for being a no-good dirty-rat stool pigeon. And Robert De Niro, the reigning deity of hoodlum heavies in films such as Goodfellas, Casino and The Godfather Part II, was last seen not simply sending up his on-screen image, but actually taking career advice from Billy Crystal. Now look what they've done to poor Sonny Corleone.

If it isn't bad enough that Analyze This and the HBO series The Sopranos are jabbing taunting fingers at the psyche of the turn-of-the-millennium mob, here comes floppy-haired Hugh Grant, who thinks he can blink and bumble his way into the Family without -- how youse guys say? -- showing a little respect. Fuhgedaboutit, indeed. After all, Analyze This skewers the gangster genre knowingly, paying loving homage even as it satirizes and mocks (if not always successfully) its place in our psychobabble society. Mickey Blue Eyes, on the other hand, is all setup, no soul -- the kind of movie that casts James Caan as a mobster, then gives him nothing to do. Caan got off better in The Godfather -- better a body full of bullets than a script full of blanks.

Grant plays Michael Felgate, high-dollar auctioneer: witty, wispy, winsome. You know, a real adorable wanker who everyone in New York says talks funny and runs funny but who's really just English. Everything is great for Michael, except that the auction-house deliveries are always late, and his girlfriend of three months, assuredly the girl of his dreams, doesn't want to marry him because her family is (yikes!) a crime family. Strangely -- or maybe just Englishly -- Felgate is nonplussed by such trivia and insists on the marriage even though Gina (Jeanne Tripplehorn) warns him that the mob will rope him in no matter how hard he tries to stay clean. No sooner does Gina say, "A little favor, a tiny lie, and you're theirs," than crime boss "Uncle" Vito (Burt Young, Rocky's Paulie) has "fixed" the delivery problem and now wants Michael to do a little something for him. Naturally, it's an offer he can't refuse.

Whether you find the eloquent Hugh Grant reciting Al Pacino's lines from Donnie Brasco in a badly faux-mush-mouthed Brooklyn accent hilarious or just dreadfully obvious, there's no denying that this is the paper-thin bit around which the entire film was conceived. Though shaped as a romantic comedy (because that's what gets Hugh Grant's audience into the seats), Mickey Blue Eyes should have been played strictly as an off-the-wall farce. There simply isn't much romance to be found, despite the whole marriage plot point (suggested title: Engaged to the Mob). In fact, the film even takes on a rather oddly -- and seemingly unintentional -- dark undertone when the betrothed couple (warning: Plot spoiler dead ahead) kills Vito's son Johnny in what can only be described as accidental self-defense.

The movie, not willing to fully acknowledge the mess that it's stepped into, soon grows staid, concerned less and less with getting laughs as it builds up suspense for its ridiculous finale involving a wedding, a few gangland hits and an FBI sting. (Wasn't that the film's working title?) Pardon, but suspense? Isn't this a romantic comedy, our couple's being tied to organized crime and guilty of manslaughter notwithstanding? As though we don't know that they're going to live happily ever after, even if the filmmakers seem to lose sight of it and have to tack on a quick resolution to a Three's Company-style jump-to-the-wrong-conclusion subplot to secure it.

Mickey Blue Eyes does have its moments when its humor moves from genial and generic to wicked and sublime, but very few of them have anything to do with the whole gangster setup. The most notable comes when Caan, playing Gina's father and one of Vito's underbosses, tortures a deadbeat associate by making him do challenging treadmill exercises. Most others are throwaway gags, though, generic jokes that could have come from any film. Former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson squeezes some juice out of a nonexistent role as an FBI agent; no doubt Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy director Kelly Makin let his old friend run wild during short spurts. The religious-tableau-meets-John Wayne Gacy artwork that Vito forces Michael to auction off reveals that somewhere, somebody associated with this film had a twisted edge. Too bad the rest was done paint-by-numbers.

At the film's most droll, a talking toy gorilla continuously interrupts a scuffle between Michael and a Mafia gorilla with such pro-simian commentary as, "I have opposable thumbs." It's a truly absurd beat in a film that has no rhythm. Still, there are scenes that will woo Grant fans. A gangly striptease meant to distract his lady friend shows that Grant has a flair for physical comedy -- but no one ever said the man wasn't charming. Fact is, the biggest problem with Mickey Blue Eyes isn't Hugh Grant playing a guy playing at being a mobster. The film itself simply doesn't play enough with the material, unlike Andrew Bergman's charming 1990 mob-movie homage The Freshman, which cast Marlon Brando as Carmine Sabatini, the kindly mobster on whom The Godfather's Vito Corleone was based.

Nothing here is that inspired or clever: Mickey Blue Eyes is closer to Jane Austen's Mafia! than The Freshman. Grant allegedly wrote some of the script himself, a benefit of a relationship with coproducer Elizabeth Hurley. Maybe he should have followed some of his own advice: During the film, he reminds himself to "rent Goodfellas, Casino and Godfathers I, II, and III." And why not? They're funnier.

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Scott Kelton Jones

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