The Whole Nine Yards (2000)

D: Jonathan Lynn
S: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis

Pleasingly convoluted black comedy with dentist Matthew Perry running afoul of hitman Bruce Willis (The Sixth Sense, The Fifth Element) and underworld boss Kevin Pollack when the former moves in to the house beside him in the outskirts of Montreal and the latter puts out a contract on Willis' head. Like Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, Perry finds himself in a world of conspiracies and lunatics over which he seems to have very little control, and actually has less even than he thinks he does. The film is broad, rambunctious fun and Perry is likable in the lead (as all of the other characters continually observe), but it is given most of its life by its supporting performances, specifically Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan as another hit man, Pollack, and Amanda Peet as a pretty dental assistant with a whole plot of her own. Star billed Natasha Henstridge is actually less effective as the love interest, and her relationship with Perry is the film's least convincing contrivance. This is unfortunate, because much of the moral centre of the story turns on this pairing, and it clearly does not function. Rosanna Arquette seems faintly embarrassed in a role as Perry's unloving French-Canadian wife.

The tone of the film is quite light despite featuring violent death at several points and Perry's concern with the moral consequences of the other characters' actions. Prizzi's Honor it is not, but it is probably the most entertaining variant on the hit man theme since that film (pitted against the likes of Mickey Blue Eyes, that's hardly praise). Willis is a key asset, again demonstrating that his considerable presence and range of pre-existing personae can be put to good use and turned on themselves when needs be. His performance rides a nice borderline between straight and parody which keeps things edgy, even if you can see the twists coming a mile off. Perry plays pratfalls and slapstick against this, incorporating elements of his own TV persona into the character's reactions, which will make it additionally appealing to his fans. The movie on the whole has something of the feel of a Preston Sturges film, because funny lines and scenes are as likely to involve supporting characters as they are the stars. This is welcome in an age of increasing dependence on star turns in the absence of a fully worked out script (Analyse This). The film is no masterpiece, mind, but it is a satisfying concoction of satire, slapstick, and one-liners which only falls short of the mark because of the lack of a convincing relationship between Perry and Henstridge. Director Jonathan Lynn is an old hand at this sort of thing, and he keeps the film zipping along without losing track of the plot. There are many nice bits of comic timing in the direction, and even the extended finale does not seem tacked-on, but, in fact, is both necessary and effective.

The film doesn't hold up to closer analysis, unfortunately. As a moral fable it lacks any kind of resonance or force (something which Sturges excelled at and John Huston incorporated beautifully into Prizzi's Honor). Despite many speeches on the subject of morality and a couple of moral conundrums which play on the perceived moral distance between the hit man and the dentist (Willis is fiercely conventional about marriage and wears a crucifix on a chain but plans to kill his wife, Perry can't sell out Willis but sleeps with Henstridge), the characters are never quite rooted or real enough for any of it to have meaning. Everything is played for affect, and, as noted, the romantic scenes where Perry professes his genuine love for Henstridge ring false, leaving him with no convincing motivation and the film without an authentic centre. For many viewers, most of this won't matter, but if truth be told, it is this kind of inner conviction which makes such films endure, and this one is likely to pass off as video fodder very quickly. It is a pity, because there are some nice scenes in here, some good characters, and a script which never lets up, all ingredients of a classic farce. It is certainly worth a look, and may prove a nice surprise for some viewers, but it will particularly appeal to fans of the cast. Give it a chance though, and you will probably enjoy yourself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.