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One Night at McCool's

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One Night at McCool's is a curiously flat comedy (with noirish overtones) that never makes good on the promise offered by its impressive cast. With Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler in the leading roles and Paul Reiser, John Goodman, and Michael Douglas providing support, it's the kind of cast that most filmmakers can only dream about. But only on occasion does the promise of the cast ever provide anything more than middling results.

Matt Dillon plays a bartender named Randy who works at a bar named McCool's. One night, after closing up, he stumbles upon a woman (Liv Tyler) being abused by her boyfriend in the alley behind the bar. He runs to her aid and succeeds in getting her away from the boyfriend's car. Without wasting much time, Jewel invites herself back to Randy's place. She's particularly impressed when she learns he owns a house. It's badly in need of paint and in an advanced stage of decay, but she sees promise. When Dillon offers her a glass of water, she says, "It's my second favorite thing in the world." "What's your first?" he says. "Fucking," she says matter-of-factly. And so that's what they proceed to do.

Soon afterwards, we learn the ruse: Jewel and her boyfriend regularly pull this con. They find a sap, have him "rescue" Jewel and take her home, and then she calls her boyfriend (played by Andrew "Dice" Clay). He shows up. They rob the guy and that's that. However, this time is different. Jewel doesn't usually have sex with her intended victim. When the boyfriend does eventually arrive, he soon ends up with a bullet in his head--courtesy of Jewel herself.

Jewel and Randy devise a story and then call the police. John Goodman as Detective Dehling immediately senses that Jewel and Randy aren't telling the truth. Through his eyes, Dillon is violent and abusive, "a human obscenity," he says. Dehling envisions himself as Jewel's protector. But now she's living with Randy, having completely moved in (without asking for Dillon's approval).

Paul Reiser plays Randy's brother. He's a lawyer with a sterile home life who only sees his next conquest when he looks at Jewel. After Detective Dehling runs off Dillon, Reiser eagerly steps in. With three men vying for Jewel's attention and with her playing the role of scheming femme fatale, the ensuing entanglements get more and more intense and outrageous.

Unfortunately, however, the movie is undone by its own obviousness. Take for example, the scene where Detective Dehling goes to Randy's house to ask some questions. When he leaves, we're treated to a wet dream of Jewel washing her car. She bumps and grinds against the fenders, her dress inching up her thighs, her lips pouting, the hose spraying a fine mist as she shakes her hair. I suppose director Harald Zwart is going for laughs through overstatement, but he turns this scene into a soft-core come-on thanks to music video-style quick cuts and soft-focus idealization. After only a couple seconds, the scene becomes embarrassing to watch. So goes much of the rest of the movie.

The movie works best when it leaves Liv Tyler off-screen altogether. Paul Reiser's scenes with his psychiatrist (played by Reba McEntire) as he tries to understand his infatuation with Jewel are among the movie's highlights. He's so officious and controlling that he's funny. And it's fun to watch Michael Douglas. He's clearly slumming in a supporting role, but he's also having a blast while sporting a thinning '50s-style pompadour with greying temples. Wearing polyester shirts and gold chains, he sits in a bingo hall, casually marking his bingo cards while Randy explains his troubles. (You see, Douglas is playing a hit man!) But for much of the rest of the movie, director Zwart mixes There's Something About Mary with Body Heat with disingenuous results.

Part of the problem is the movie's clumsy structure. Each of the three main men characters (Dillon, Goodman, and Reiser) must find someone to tell their story to. Then the movie flashes back to before Randy meets Jewel. As each story unravels, a different vision of Jewel is revealed. Dillon tells his story to Douglas. Goodman tells his story to a priest (who is only too eager to listen to the more salacious details--"Don't leave anything out," says the priest. "Every detail is important."). And Reiser tells his story to his psychiatrist. While each of the situations has promise, only Dillon's story amounts to much. And the fact that they're all telling stories at the same time is less absurd than simply contrived.

Then there's the matter of Liv Tyler's casting. She's beautiful, yes, but she's still a somewhat gawky kid. The role of femme fatale is well beyond her reach, requiring a more predatory presence--which she lacks entirely. With the wrong actress at the center of the movie, One Night at McCool's never really catches fire. Tyler is no doubt a fine young actress, but this is the wrong vehicle for her.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]