In the middle-of-the-road comedy The Whole Nine Yards, Matthew Perry gets the kind of role that would have gone to Jack Lemmon in his heyday (back when he was a Testy Young Man). Watching this fish-out-of-water (or, dentist-in-gangland, if you will) story, I couldn’t help picturing fresh-faced Jack going around stammering and wincing as the movie’s main character (a dentist) gets a new neighbor (a mobster). What this film really needs is that angsty Everyman character that became Lemmon’s hallmark.
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Perry is no Lemmon—on the other hand, he’s also no lemon. As a hen-pecked dentist who gets involved with mob bosses, no-neck henchmen and contract killers, the Friend walks the center stripe on the Comedy Highway. Occasionally, he steps to the right or left for some genuinely funny slapstick (even though we’ve seen the bit countless other times, he actually makes running into a glass door look funny). But for the most part his performance is straight and stiff as shirt cardboard. Or, Lemmon with all the juice squeezed out.
We know this type of role can be funny. Just look at his predecessors: Alan Arkin in The In-Laws and Hugh Grant in Mickey Blue Eyes. Okay, maybe Grant’s character wasn’t funny, but there was still a certain delight in watching his baffled English stammer go up against guys whose vocabulary is riddled with “deze” and “doze.”
Perry shoots for baffled, but he mainly ends up with waffled, as he teeters between fine physical humor and milquetoast romantic straight-man with mob moll Natasha Henstridge (who, by the way, plays it completely straight and comes off with plenty of romantic appeal).
I’m certain there’s a very funny guy hiding under Perry’s skin, just waiting to crawl out and show us his stuff. But in movies like this and Fools Rush In, he’s trapped in comedy-by-committee scripts that never allow him to free his Inner Comedian. Just once, I’d like to see that bitterly sarcastic humor that was on display for the first two seasons of Friends.
There’s also a really funny movie inside The Whole Nine Yards just waiting to break out of the Analyze This/Mickey Blue Eyes/My Blue Heaven mold. Some of the fault may lie with the film’s leads (Bruce Willis as mobster Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski matches Perry in the playing-it-safe-and-bland arena) and some of the problems may stem from the fact that this was directed by Jonathan Lynn, who had his moment of glory with My Cousin Vinny but has since gone downhill with lame-o comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Trial and Error (those are, in fact, so forgettable that right now you’re probably thumbing through your edition of Video Movie Guide in an effort to remember anything at all about them).
If the leads are about as dull as a drawer of butter knives, then at least there’s the Ginsu performances of most of the supporting cast. Henstridge is beautiful and charming as The Tulip’s dissatisfied wife, Amanda Peet hams it up as Perry’s chirpy dental assistant who enjoys the whole proceedings a little too much, The Green Mile’s gentle giant Michael Clarke Duncan does fine as a bodyguard with a deep voice and a big heart and Kevin Pollak has a funny scene as a rival mobster where he machine-guns the English language with an Eastern European accent. But for every Pollack and Peet, there’s an Arquette—Rosanna in this case. As Perry’s shrewish wife, she puts the “bad” in “bad accent” as a Canadian who seems to have learned how to speak after listening to only one side of the Berlitz language tapes.
Mangled dialogue aside, there’s nothing stellar about this story which can’t decide between screwball or straight laced romantic comedy with a violent streak. In short, The Whole Nine Yards is about the consequences of marrying the wrong partner, falling in love with another married person and, finally, sorting it all out with gunfire. As the movie grinds along, there are some funny lines and sight gags here and there. In particular, a naked Peet wielding a gun during a shootout is a sight to see—but you might forget to laugh because it’s so refreshingly clever, unlike the rest of the film.
If we hadn’t already been bombarded with Mafia comedies (not counting The Sopranos, at least four in the last two years), The Whole Nine Yards might have stood out. As it is, it too-accurately reflects Perry’s movie career: the Dull Nine Yards.
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