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Norm Macdonald won my undying admiration during a guest shot on Charles Grodin’s now-defunct cable talk show. The powdered, bewigged Grodin, a mortician’s pièce de résistance, introduced Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor and solicitously asked what he wished to talk about. “My scrotum,” Macdonald matter-of-factly replied, and he proceeded to discuss his sac in unsparing detail, including wrinkles and hair. Grodin pretended to go along with the gag, but the melted mucilage of his toupee leaked onto his brow, betraying his embarrassment and anxiety.
At his best, Canadian-born Macdonald is devilishly subversive, a bland exteriordark curly hair, deep blue eyes, an airline steward’s smilecamouflaging a perverse, frequently annihilative wit. His low-key delivery, with its flat a’s and slack rhythms, has a stealth-bomb sneakiness, leaving audiences wondering whether he actually said what they think they heard.
Macdonald’s comedic style requires specialized showcasing; it’s too peculiar for mainstream packaging. Dirty Work, an attempt at irreverent farce scripted by Macdonald and Saturday Night Live colleagues Frank Sebastiano and Fred Wolf, is the comic’s first starring vehicle. It’s a miserable start, dismally flat and moist with flop sweatMGM refused to screen it in time for reviewers to meet opening-weekend deadlines. Ineptly directed by America’s Funniest Home Videos host Bob Saget, Dirty Work may prove to be Macdonald’s last starring vehicle as well.
Too bad, because the movie has a promising premise. Mitch Weaver (Macdonald) and Sam McKenna (tubby Artie Lange) are 30-ish boyhood chums incapable of holding jobs or girlfriends. The two need to raise quick cash to underwrite a heart transplant for Sam’s rakish father (Jack Warden). After several false starts, they hit pay dirt by founding Dirty Work Inc., a company offering revenge-for-hire services to victimized clients.
Characters and situations that must have seemed uproarious in brainstorming script sessionsan abusive, alcoholic, bearded lady tormenting a midget; an automobile dealership’s live TV commercial spoiled by women pretending to be dead hookerstank in Saget’s fumbling hands. Celebrity vignettes do nothing to palliate the mirthlessness. A wizened Chevy Chase leadenly impersonates a heart surgeon with a gambling addiction, and the late, pathetic Chris Farley, rabidly unfunny, ends his career as a loudmouth whose nose has been bitten off by a Saigon whore.
Dirty Work concludes with Mitch and Sam’s demolition of a production of Don Giovanni, a slapdash finale that won’t remind anybody of the Marx Brothers’ immortal night at the opera. But nothing else in this 81-minute washout works, least of all Gregory Keen’s garish production designs and Arthur Albert’s harsh camerawork, which flood the screen with clashing colors and patterns. Macdonald stumbles through the movie looking uncomfortable, stymied by self-penned anal rape, testicle, and bestiality japes that die on his lips. If he gets a second chance, which seems unlikely, he’d be well advised to look beyond his scrotum for inspiration.
A man who produces, directs, edits, writes, and stars in his first feature film has to be a genius or a nincompoop. Hav Plenty demonstrates that Christopher Scott Cherot is no genius. The 30-year-old Cherot financed his project by persuading his mom to mortgage her home, twisting the arms of private investors, and driving a New York City taxicab. One can’t help admiring his gumption while lamenting his lack of talent.
Bravely but foolhardily, Cherot has attempted to make a ’90s African-American up-market comedy. His model appears to be no less intimidating a work than The Philadelphia Story. As in Philip Barry’s sophisticated play and film, a directionless, impoverished writer visits the home of a moneyed family and falls for an ice princess. Cherot plays passive Lee Plenty, a blocked, homeless would-be novelist and loser at the dating game. His rich, beautiful, engaged friend Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell) invites him to see in the New Year with her family at their suburban D.C. home. During the long weekend, Lee is stalked by Hav’s horny pal Caroline (Tammi Katherine Jones), befriended by her newlywed sister Leigh (Robinne Lee), confided in by her prep school classmate Bobby (Kim Harris), and offered prognostications by her psychic grandmother (Betty Vaughn.) Plenty (who has nothing but his own integrity) and Hav (who has everything but love) spend the holiday cautiously sniffing at romancebut nothing happens between them until they return to Manhattan, whereupon nothing happens once again. In the film’s coda, Lee writes a play about his nonrelationship with Hav, which, on the basis of the excerpt we’re shown, appears to be even more stupefying than Cherot’s movie.
It’s cruel to assail a neophyte’s labor of love, but reviewers are not publicists and have no option but candor. Hav Plenty borders on the unwatchablea self-indulgent, inconsequential, interminable collection of static images (mostly close-ups and two-shots) in which an attractive but demonstrably talentless cast is iced by a blizzard of gauche, literally unspeakable dialogue. Cherot has created not characters but marginally distinguishable stick figures that no acting ensemble, however gifted, could flesh out. His screenplay’s naive notions of wealth, romance, and creativity would be jejune in a middle-school play.
Hav Plenty is beyond and beneath criticism. Words can’t convey the tedium of sitting through it or the inexplicability of Miramax’s decision to distribute and promote it. The impulse to praise Cherot for making a movie about nonstereotypical African-American characters is nullified by his inability to invent plausible human beings.CP