Film and TV

Heads Will Roll

The eight heads in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag don't look much like heads. They look like what they are--big, squarish rubber things from the studio makeup department, each with a goofy expression and a crummy wig glued on top. That's because the makers of this raucous black comedy about a mob hit man who misplaces the fruits of his labors at the airport don't really want to turn anyone's stomach. Instead, they're aiming to make multiple murder kind of fun. There are a lot of puns about headshrinkers and head cases, and at one point, the collected noggins even burst into song (the killer is dreaming now), belting out a slightly altered version of "Mr. Sandman" ("Mr. Hitman") in four-part harmony. It's quite a stretch.

Does it come as a surprise that the guy who loses his head(s) is Joe Pesci, on another binge of self-parody? Probably not.

The head man here, so to speak, is Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar eight years ago for his Dead Poets Society screenplay. He's the writer and director of 8 Heads and so must shoulder the blame for a comedy that makes a lot of noise but not much sense.

Try to imagine Michael Corleone stuffing the entire Tattaglia family into his carry-on luggage and you've got a notion about the creakiness of Schulman's premise, comic or not. Hey, it would take a couple of strongmen just to lift this load. The story presses on nonetheless, borrowing from Peter Bogdanovich's neo-screwball farce What's Up, Doc? to switch identical-looking bags at the San Diego airport, with predictable results. A goofy medical student named Charlie (Andy Comeau) winds up with the body parts, Tommy the hit man gets Charlie's dirty laundry, and the chase is on--to a fraternity house in Maryland (where Charlie's roommates, David Spade and Todd Louiso, await) and a resort hotel in Mexico, where Charlie, his reluctant fiancee (Kristy Swanson) and her neurotic parents (George Hamilton and Dyan Cannon) are about to be swept into intrigues aplenty.

These include lost heads, get-rid-of-the-annoying-mother-in-law jokes that went out with W.C. Fields, a band of Mexican desperadoes so cliched that any Chicano within six miles of the theater will probably be calling up the civil-rights commission, and the usual surfeit of car chases.

There are a couple of unforced, amusing moments in here. To start with, how do you resist a movie--for the first twenty minutes, anyway--in which the first line is a shouted: "Die, scumbags!"? And when Tommy, coolly assessing the resemblance to their originals of replacement heads he's picked up in a cryogenics lab so he'll have a complete set to show his boss, sees things this way: "I got a Hugo, a Marty, a so-so Stew and a bad Frank." Not bad graveyard humor.

Unfortunately, Pesci stopped being really tough with Goodfellas, and he wore out the laugh track in My Cousin Vinny. He needs both to be really effective, but it isn't happening. These days he's the mere shell of a goombah--the stuff of Saturday Night Live parodies--and he now attracts screenplays to match. For my money, in fact, the only steady comic appeal in this bluntly named, even-more-bluntly made comedy comes from the surprising Hamilton, who plays an uptight California neat freak ("They stop serving lunch in the dining room at 0200 hours," he announces) with admirable reserve. Too bad the Mexican cops throw him into jail halfway through the picture.

The others, including filmmaker Schulman, seem to have lost their heads.


8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.
Written and directed by Tom Schulman. With Joe Pesci, Andy Comeau, Kristy Swanson, Dyan Cannon, George Hamilton and David Spade.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo