One Night at McCool’s

One Night at McCool’s has a promising opening. Matt Dillon is a jilted, luckless bartender named Randy. When we first see him he’s entering a bingo parlor to hire a hit-man named Mr. Burmeister. Burmeister turns out to be Michael Douglas, decked out in a pompadoured wig that’s three shades darker than the hair sticking out around it. At that point, with the camera panning around the bingo players’ intense faces, and Randy launching into his explanation of who he wants killed, McCool’s look like it might be a Sturges-Demme-type comedy about American originals. By the end of the scene, though, it’s hard not to notice there’ve been no real laughs despite its rat-a-tat spray of gags. And so it goes. McCool’s throws jokes at the audience like alms for the poor; unfortunately, they’re all pennies.

The object of Randy’s anger is his girlfriend Jewel (Liv Tyler), whom he saved one night from an abusive boyfriend outside McCool’s, the dive where Randy works as a bartender. Randy takes Jewel to the house he inherited from his mother, and she’s instantly enamored with the dilapidated hovel—so enamored that she coolly murders her boyfriend and moves in with Randy. Randy is smitten enough with her that he’s willing to tell the detective investigating the case (John Goodman) that he shot the boyfriend in self-defense during a robbery. Detective Dehling believes that he’s lying, and when his investigation brings him into contact with Jewel, he becomes infatuated with her, seeing in her the one woman that can take the place of his cherished dead wife. At the same time, Randy’s smug cousin Carl (Paul Reiser) is nursing his own crush on Jewel, but where Detective Dehling sees a virginal young woman in need of protection, Carl sees a sultry sex-kitten that can fulfill his Penthouse Forum fantasies.

McCool’s central joke is its three-ply narrative: as Randy recites his version of the events to the hit-man Burmeister, Carl and Detective Dehling are doing the same thing with a psychologist (Reba McEntire) and a priest (Richard Jenkins) respectively. The three versions of how the men came to be infatuated with Jewel dove-tail and overlap as their paths intersect, and we see how they view Jewel, and each other, in the way their flashbacks are tweaked to form contradictory perspectives on the same events. (Where Randy sees himself as a Cocktail-type dynamo behind the bar, Carl sees him as slobbering drunk who swills alcohol out of a toilet plunger, while Dehling is convinced that the nebbishy Randy is physically abusing Jewel.)

When Randy is fired from his job because of the shooting, Jewel sweet-talks him into turning to burglary as an answer to their financial woes, but they’ve barely begun their career as criminals when they have another corpse on their hands. By degrees Jewel is revealed to be more than the dysfunctional waif that she first appeared—she’s actually a cunning femme fatale who’s playing the three men against each other in order to secure the domestic security she’s always craved. As Jewel fiddles with her paint samples, trying to decide how to remake Randy’s house into the nest of her dreams, Carl and Dehling both realize that the increasingly depressed ex-bartender is the only thing standing in between them and the woman of their dreams.

One Night at McCool’s misfires on almost every level. It’s not much fun to criticize the work of a man who died last year, but there’s no getting around the fact that Stan Seidel’s script isn’t any good. Jokes such as “You ought to see what she does with my hose” sound like they came from a vaudeville for preteens. McCool’s has a grab-bag of wildly uneven tones, veering without reason between parodies of old movies such as The Lady From Shanghai to outbursts of realistic violence. (When did attempted rape become the stuff of comedy? And why are horny priests still considered funny?) Seidel attacks American materialism as if he’s wrestling with a puppy, and he fails to exploit the satiric possibilities in the connection between Jewel’s yen for upward mobility and the Madonna/whore fantasies that the men build around her.

Director Harald Zwart tries to spritz things up with some modest visual effects, but his thinking is just as pat as Seidel’s: the scene in which Jewel washes Randy’s car is indistinguishable from the soft-core beer commercials that it pretends to satirize. (It comes as no surprise that Zwart has been directing TV ads up to now.) The flashback device that we think is a setup goes on so long that it becomes the body of the movie; by the time we’ve been brought up to the present, there’s only enough time left for all the parties to converge Doris Day-style at Randy’s house. And the climax—a string of homophobic jokes culminating in a four-way gun-battle in which the characters inflict realistic-looking wounds on each other to the beat of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”—is somehow too trivial to even be offensive.

The movie’s most satisfying acting comes from two unexpected quarters. Country-western singer Reba McEntire, who was also a kick in Tremors, is surprisingly polished and precise in the minor role of Carl’s therapist—she’s the one adult in the movie. Of the leads, only John Goodman has put any heart into McCool’s. All too often Goodman’s booming voice and physical aggressiveness make him seem like a hip George Kennedy, but as the grieving, lonely Dehling he displays flashes of the sweetness and vulnerability that stole True Stories from under David Byrnes’ nose.

But no one in the movie’s patchwork cast can save One Night at McCool’s. This may be the first time that Matt Dillon has ever been boring, and it doesn’t help that a glaring incongruity surrounds his character: it’s impossible to believe that a bartender who looks like Dillon could ever have trouble getting laid. A larger problem for the movie is the casting of Liv Tyler as the vamp Jewel. Tyler has grown into a plush, upholstered woman, something like the Melanie Griffith of Something Wild, but her personality is so inexpressive that watching her perform is like watching a couch trying to act. She doesn’t come close to convincing us that she’s capable of turning men against their basic nature; none of her bombshell poses results in an explosion. And it was a terrible idea to cast Andrew Silverstein in even one role, much less two of them. Silverstein is so unattractive a human being that you don’t need to remember he was once known as Andrew Dice Clay to be repelled by him.

– Tom Block