A line such as “There’s my beauty!” shouldn’t elicit gags. But in My First Mister, the best word to describe the relationship between beauty and the beholder is “yuck.” Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski), you see, is a 17-year-old Goth chick with piercings on her face and a chip on her shoulder. Randall (Albert Brooks) is a 49-year-old manager of a Brooks Brothers-like clothing store where Jennifer apparently charms her way into a job. (Note to job hunters: “Fucking asshole” is the new “You can count on me.”)
Here’s where the questions begin. Why would Jenniferwhose hobby is writing her own eulogieswant to work in a stuffy retail store? Why would Randallwho’s always home by 9hire someone who curses at him and is forever dressed for Halloween? And why are they so attracted to each other? Though the heavy makeup and jewelry can’t obscure the luminescence of Sobieski’s perfect skin, Jennifer’s miserable screw-the-world-and-especially-you personality and shapeless sad rags make you believe her when she says she’s never had a boyfriendher monotone narration tells you so directly, as well as a barrage of poor-me comments such as “I like chocolate; it’s dark and warm, like what I imagine a hug would be like.” And given the venom with which Jennifer regards her sunny mother and stepfather (appropriately clueless Carol Kane and Michael McKean), you’d think that she’d sooner dismiss paunchy, pants-up-to-there Randall as another reason to hate the world rather than start thinking of him as her “lover.”
But they apparently so enjoy each other’s company that their unlikely friendship spills out of the workplace, and Randall is soon secretly dancing to Jennifer’s favorite music and getting a tattoo while gazing longingly/ickily at his new best buddy. The script gives Randall a tug-at-your-heartstrings speech midway through the movie that details his extreme loneliness and many phobias in an attempt to explain the bond between them, but it merely seems out of character for someone who’s thus far been demonstrating a what-the-hell willingness to try new things.
Sobieski and Brooks manage to infuse their thinly drawn characters with their most important qualitiesJennifer’s darkness, Randall’s lonelinessperhaps to the film’s detriment; these aren’t people you’d want to spend a whole lot of time with. Although it’s at first refreshing to see baby-faced Sobieski as a thievin’ badass, the grumbled whine with which she delivers the narration and her ever-present frown quickly make Jennifer tiresome. And it’s not that Brooks doesn’t evince truly touching affection when Randall is talking about how wonderful Jennifer is or yielding, always with a sigh, to her attempts to update him; it’s just that after a while you want to call Protective Services on the guy. The actors maintain respectability as the script nose-dives into melodrama, though Sobieski does a bit better with a later bout of uncontrolled sobbing than when she first expresses anger at the revelation of Randall’s inevitable tragic secret: “I’m going to use the ‘fuck’ word now.”
My First Mister might have worked better in a darker, less Hallmark-card context, where the pair’s attraction could have been more honestly explored. But actress-turned-director Christine Lahti’s light, comic touches and airy soundtrack too weirdly suggest that theirs is merely another fine romance with a sad but saccharine ending.
The gags offered in Barry Levinson’s Bandits are of a different sort but nearly as unpleasant. Levinson is obviously no mere Tarantino imitatorhis Bugsy was on its way to winning Oscar recognition long before Reservoir Dogs was unleashedbut this meandering addition to the quirky-criminal genre feels more like 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag than The Usual Suspects.
Joe (Bruce Willis) and Terry (Billy Bob Thornton) bust out of a prison whose security guards have really bad aim and immediately resume their life of crime. Joe, the smarmy, impetuous one, dreams of stealing enough money to open a resort in Mexico, and Terry, the nervous hypochondriac, just wants it all to be over (on Mexico: “I have sanitation issues”). Known as the Sleepover Bandits because of their ritual of holding bank managers hostage in their own homes in order to have access to the vaults first thing the next morning, the two have plenty of opportunities to show how gentle and charming they really are as they encroach on each family’s nightly ritualstalking recipes, lecturing teenagers, helping out with the kids; the script smacks you in the face with just how damn lovable you’re supposed to find these guys.
The robberies are boringly conducted without difficulty, again and again and again, but the thieves’ lives become somewhat complicated when Kate (Cate Blanchett), a woman who’s running from her miserable home life, decides to tag along with them for a while. At first, their shared love of Bonnie Tyler brings Joe and Kate together, to Terry’s disapproval; later, when Terry gets stuck with Kate for a while after a robbery, romance blooms as they discover a mutual fear of antique furniture and black-and-white movies.
Bandits then becomes more about a triangular love affair than a crime spree and officially loses what little suspenseful arc it started off with. The criminals and their hostage become high-profile, but their routine is unaffected, save for a couple of wiseass victims calling them by name. The police they encounter are dumber than dirt, yet not in a deliberately penned, Chief Wiggum way; their ineptitude seems rather like the machinations of a lazy scriptwriter who’d rather just inexplicably send away a cop who briefly shows up at a bank’s doors than have the bad guys deal with him. And though Kate eventually tells both of the bandits, apparently out of frustration, that their romances are over, there’s nothingand I mean nothingto indicate that the relationships have been anything but bliss for her. Real conflict isn’t thrown in until the closing scene, a part of which is shown at the beginningand these guys just aren’t that interesting in an easy, episodic context.
The film is framed by commentary from an America’s Most Wanted-type profile, with clips from an interview with the bandits as well as footage from their last big heist interwoven with the so-called action; the journalistic examination of Joe and Terry’s escapades helps the movie if only because it makes them seem more exciting and newsworthy than they really are.
A few laughs come from Thornton’s one-joke character, with his encyclopedic knowledge of disease, as well as from the various disguises Joe and Terry assume with every robbery, but most of the attempts at comedy feel forced. Levinson’s offbeat characters in films such as Wag the Dog and Rain Man are usually a pleasure to watch, given a little bit of smarts and a story to drive them; in Bandits, his mistake is letting loose a couple of guys who’ve managed to make bank robbery routine simply because they’re no dumber than the people around them. CP