Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Hillary and Jackie) sets aside tragic romance for a moment to become the emotionally astute but verbally challenged Trixie Zurbo, a humble Windy City security officer and relentless Ms. Malaprop. ("If you don't have clues, the bread and butter can be cut out from right under your feet, and then there's only one person to blame: each other.") Fed up with the random violence of her retail beat, she moseys up to a small resort town to work undercover in a lakeside casino. The low-profile gig affords her friendship with Kirk Stans (Nathan Lane), a cabaret crooner and ex-con with Rich Little's voice box. A rake named Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney, tactless sinew) is irresistibly drawn to Trixie's naiveté and creative wording (she sees that he's "a real statue of Adidas"), while she takes a shine to Ruby Pearli (Brittany Murphy, sass incarnate), a street-smart barfly of questionable repute.
After a bit of awkward sexual interrogation in a homey mom-and-pop diner, Dex coaxes Trixie out onto the little luxury yacht of his boss, a vulgar developer named Red Rafferty (Will Patton). On deck, amid assorted henchmen and lurid shadings ("They look like fornographers!"), she encounters Drummond Avery (Nick Nolte), an oozingly corrupt senator who instantly catches her syntax virus: "If you can't keep quiet, shut up, comprendy?" Expelled from the cruise, she returns to shore to get happy-handed with Dex, until said henchmen rough him up, demanding an incriminating videotape. Trixie leaps into action, and before you can say Foul Play, a host of dangerous variables come pouring out of the woodwork. With a knowing nod, Lane's showman surmises: "The sword of Damocles hangs over Pandora's box!"
There is a mysterious murder in Trixie to drive the plot along -- but rather than focus on who did it, the point here is to watch Trixie pursue justice "by hook or by ladder." Her instinct so overpowers her intellectual prowess ("Inside, I'm outgoing!") that she's almost a female version of Peter Sellers in Being There. Clearly, Watson is having a ball escaping eternal amalgamation as a masochistic Irish cellist, and while her cuteness toes the line of nausea, it never crosses over for long. It may be a stretch to buy her as a Chicago cop, but it's easy to identify with her bent linguistic aspirations. One wonders how many takes it took for her to play these lines without grinning.
As the leering, stone-faced, silver-haired senator, Nolte -- who cavorted in drag for Rudolph's splendid Breakfast of Champions last year -- once again proves he's a good sport, allowing his mad lust to pour forth in an upscale watering hole. His crooked, detached politician is the anti-Trixie, sworn by an oath not to go beyond the bounds of "reasonable dishonesty," and the tight exchanges between the two are truly inspired. Lane plays the other side of the fence, exaggerating every word and gesture ("Norman! The loons!" he cries, aping Katherine Hepburn for no particular reason) as if he's the only one smart enough to get the joke. Everybody else acts like a regular person -- i.e., sociopathic.
It's easy to distinguish Rudolph from Altman, as he's neither as scathing (The Player) nor as wacky (Popeye) as his mentor. Starting off with shlock (1973's Nightmare Circus, aka -- no kidding -- Barn of the Naked Dead), he soon began littering his visions with unexpected quirks, like the punkish types dropped into a 1920s salon in The Moderns. With his ever-evolving talent roster -- from Keith Carradine and Geraldine Chaplin through Lara Flynn Boyle and Nolte -- his projects feel like family reunions, usually set in a netherworld America. Trixie nicely fits this mold, capturing Rudolph's philosophy: "Hey, nobody's human."