Who Is Cletis Tout?

on July 26, 2002 by Bridget Byrne
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   It's a clever trick. "Who is Cletis Tout?" plays clever with a clever idea, but eats its own tale. Maybe that happens because the plot is really a quick snack, not a well-balanced meal. But enough of the word games; the movie has its own games to play on our expectations and knowledge of crime drama and classic villains. The homage is amusing, but not very profound.

   Tim Allen, taking his brand of humor on a sidestep, plays Critical Jim, a hit man with a passion for old movies and strong opinions about them. Waiting for the mob payoff that will prompt him to kill a man he believes is one Cletis Tout, he is engaged by the cornered man's determined rendition of a story designed to prove he's not any such person. Christian Slater has the Scheherazade storyteller role, claiming to be Trevor Finch, a small-time forger--hardly an upstanding citizen, but not one who deserves to be knocked off. Slater, acknowledging at one moment his young Jack Nicholson characteristics, handles the ride attractively as the character uses Hollywood pitch meeting tactics and picks up on Critical Jim's love of the flashback to unspool the story that brought him to his current predicament.

   His unlikely yarn stretches from the 1970s to the immediate moment and incorporates a magician, a prison escape, buried treasure, homing pigeons, death, true love, and a whole bunch of imaginative con jobs, just to name some of the ingredients.

   Richard Dreyfuss brings his accustomed definition to the larcenous guy whose sleight-of-hand sets the whole shebang in motion, and Portia de Rossi is engaging as his feisty daughter. The supporting cast has fun trying to take the deliberately clich‚ cops and robbers beyond the clich‚. Billy Connolly struts in briefly as a usefully corrupt coroner, and RuPaul swans around a few corners as a nosy drag queen.

   Handling his own material, Chris Ver Wiel is not over-indulgent, but there's skimpiness to the whole movie that undercuts its good effort at a modern-minded twist on high-style nostalgia. Starring Tim Allen, Christian Slater, Portia de Rossi and Richard Dreyfuss. Directed and written by Chris Ver Wiel. Produced by Dan Grodnik, Matt Grimali and Robert Shukal. A Paramount Classics release. Comedy. Rated R for language, some violence and sexuality. Running time: 95 min

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