You might not think that the subject of murder for hire would be rife with comic possibilities, but from the under rated "Grosse Pointe Blank," to the slightly over rated "Prizzi's Honor," a considerable amount of dark humor has been mined from the hit men vein.
The new comedy "The Whole Nine Yards" is not as ambitious as those two films. It doesn't use the hit man device to explore the human condition; but instead settles for being a wacky sendup of Mob and contract killer thrillers.
Matthew Perry plays Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky, a nebbishy Montreal dentist, who lives miserably with his French-Canadian wife, Sophie (Rosanna Arquette), who despises him. Their monotonous circle of spite is broken by the arrival of a new neighbor, who calls himself Jimmy Jones (Bruce Willis).
But Jimmy is even worse than his chosen namesake. He is really the infamous Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski, a contract killer who ratted out his former employers, the Hungarian Gogolak Gang of Chicago. Sophie sees a chance for two paydays. First, she sends Oz to Chicago to try to sell Jimmy to the Gogolaks; then she tells Jimmy what she thinks Oz is up to, hoping Jimmy will make her into a life insurance beneficiary.
Meanwhile, Oz, who has no intention of contacting the Gogolak gang, is met in his hotel room by another contract killer for the Gogolaks, the giant Frankie Figs (Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile). He forcibly takes Oz to meet Jaani Gogolak (Kevin Pollak) at his mansion, where Oz meets Jimmy's beautiful abandoned wife, Cynthia, (Natasha Henstridge) and falls in love with her.
There is more-- a lot more, including a dental hygienist, brightly played by Amanda Peet, who also has a violent hidden side, but the plot is not the fun here; and for as long as the movie remembers that, it is a rollicking good time. For its first hour, "The Whole Nine Yards" struts the inspired lunacy of the classic "The In-laws," another comedy about a nervous dentist dragged reluctantly into a world of killers and intrigue.
Director Jonathan Lynn cleverly combines broad slapstick, witty jabs at movie conventions, very dark humor, and wild sight gags into a lively mix that keeps the laughs coming. Randy Edelman's terrific jazz score also lends a certain buoyancy to the procedings.
Matthew Perry shows a flair for physical bumbling comedy that goes nicely with his patented finicky act, which makes him the perfect foil for Bruce Willis's minimalist, ultra cool (but with a sense that he could explode at any time) act.
Michael Clarke Duncan shows his charisma in "The Green Mile" was the real thing as the most charming hired muscle in some time; and Kevin Pollak and Rosanna Arquette are hilarious with their Warner Brothers cartoonish ethnic accents. "Jimmy is... wermin!" Jaani sputters at one point.
However, the movie takes a serious wrong turn with a "Weekend at Bernies"-style gag about dental records; and loses some of its steam when in the last reel, screenwriter Mitchell Kapner gets too occupied with wrapping up the loose ends of the double and triple crosses of his impossibly contrived plot.
"The Whole Nine Yards" may not always hit the bullseye, but it only rarely misses the target completely, thanks to a talented cast with good comic timing.