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Nothing to Lose opens with a scene that has a built-in twist. A guy is lying in bed, speaking to someone in a combination of hurtful truths and pillowy falsehoods that indicates a dumping is in progress. “The truth is,” Tim Robbins’ Nick Beam says with a too-serious face, “you’re a big, fat pig.” Across the headboard, the camera pivots to show Nick’s radiant blond wife (Kelly Preston), laughing and waving her hands around, “My turn, my turn.”

The obvious joke is that her breakup speech will be real, but one of Nothing to Lose’s chief charms is watching writer/director Steve Oedekerk slip around the obvious joke like a skier eluding slalom gates. Her unpleasant little speech is just as cruel and imaginative. Here is a very odd, rather endearing way of showing us a couple who are meant for each other—they share a disdain for touchy-feely truisms; they value honesty and a sense of the ridiculous.

Which makes it even worse when, dashing home early with flowers and night-on-the-town tickets, Nick finds his wife having sex with a man upstairs and his boss’s cufflinks downstairs. Nick’s devastation is total—it isn’t just that his wife is cheating on him, it’s that she betrayed the principles they live by, and with a coarse, vulgar, acquisitive jerk who is everything she claims to despise.

The setup is fast and gripping; Oedekerk has a way of making the jokes and the plot points erupt like popcorn kernels, with a constant delighted buoyancy. Robbins’ doughy slyness is endearing—he falls in love onscreen better than any other actor working today—and it’s a jolt to see it displaced by utter emotional deadness. Sightlessly, Nick gets into his Range Rover and drives until he’s forced to stop, at the gunpoint of carjacker “T” (Martin Lawrence). Not, at this point, surprised by anything, Nick kidnaps his assailant and the two of them take off into the desert for a biracial, guy-style Thelma & Louise adventure of holdups and misunderstandings.

There are subplots and coincidences and too-heavily underlined ironies that propose to comment on the imbalanced social state of things—T is a loving husband and father with advanced knowledge of electronics who is unable to find a job; nearly all of Nick’s assumptions about his new buddy’s life and abilities are wrong. But for the most part, Nothing to Lose chooses the hard way. When Nick, looking terribly reasonable, suggests that T look for a job, T doesn’t bother answering—no speeches about corporate racism or the economic situation. Unfavorably impressed by Nick’s favorite candy, T makes a stale crack about white folks’ taste buds. “That’s a very racist thing to say,” Nick frowns. T’s face lights up. “Oh yeah? Good.”

Like the script itself, the leads of Nothing to Lose continue to surprise each other and themselves with how idiosyncratic their relationship is, how it should be following the conventional buddy-antagonist trajectory but refuses to. Nick and T respond to each other as individuals, whether fighting over a credit card, arguing whether to hold up filling stations, or visiting T’s family.

Lawrence is one of those rare actors whose every line reading and every body movement is fluid, funny, and in sync. Even his reactions are pitch-perfect, and he never settles for the guaranteed laugh when he can earn one with a risky, spot-on choice. His T is ebullient and surprisingly optimistic for a guy who has decided on robbing folks as a stopgap career move. He can’t help sympathizing with Nick’s situation, man to man, but every bit of encouragement drives Nick insane, as does T’s jubilation at life’s joys—Nick just can’t feel them anymore. For the first half of the movie, the only times he comes alive are the throat-clutching rages he goes into whenever T mentions Nick’s wife.

The second half of the movie mistrusts the leads’ interesting, very funny relationship, and while the jokes don’t diminish in number, their quality goes down a bit. Along the way, T and Nick meet their dark twins, a black guy/white guy crime spree freshly released from prison and looking to control the gas station-holdup business in the entire Southwest. When Nick decides, in a misplaced act of revenge, to knock over his own company, the four of them drift not very amusingly back toward Los Angeles, where only the extended and absurd break-in (like the rush-hour “chase” scene in Dear Detective) keeps the energy up.

Unlike certain summer bait-and-switch schemes (the promise-squandering My Best Friend’s Wedding) whose trailers outgunned the full-length product, Nothing to Lose is funny throughout, and even when it flags or strives, the leads’ confidence and easygoing charm are worth watching just to see them pull off with breathtaking assurance an exquisite two-man balancing act.

Whatever Spanish director Carlos Saura is working out through his intense preoccupation with the strident, sobbing sound of flamenco must be serious. The musical and dance style’s ebullience is stylized, its beauty born of haughtiness and self-involvement, its syncopated rhythms not generous even when they are entirely on display. Flamenco is a fulfillment of the austere celebration that is flamenco, and Saura, always a form-to-function fitter in the most literal sense, has hired the unsurpassable Vittorio Storaro to shoot it, 100 stunning, thorny, exasperating minutes of pure song and dance.

Stunning because Storaro has wisely brought to this ornate mission an almost Japanese sensibility. The space is high-ceilinged but unmistakably an interior, populated by graceful wooden chairs and a series of panels. Storaro saturates his bisected, trisected, or shadowboxed spaces with light—vivacious yellow for the “Guajiras,” in which stately women in turn-of-the-century dress tap and pose with fans, like a bouquet of hothouse cream roses, and slowly deepening from white to nothing as a circle on the floor becomes a sort of inverse spotlight and motionless partner for the “Soleares.”

This is a lot of flamenco, and even lovers of the form will feel frustrated that the showy excitement onscreen—the heart-stopping dance of a young boy in dandified purple, the spine-tingling sound of three aching female voices describing mournful curlicues around the guitar line—presumes response even while the act of movie watching presumes passivity. But Flamenco and flamenco are lovely, the level of accomplishment (the musicians’, dancers’, and singers’) astronomical, the experience a multifaceted exploration of sensuality—by turns cruel, tender, playful, and bold. This is the best expression of the form American audiences will ever see.CP