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The Whole Nine Yards

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 3 March 2000

Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Starring Matthew Perry, 
Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, 
Michael Clarke Duncan, Natasha Henstridge, 
Rosanna Arquette, and Kevin Pollak 

Written by Mitchell Kapner

Something Else

Recently, I saw Michael Clarke Duncan -- newly Oscar-nominated supporting star of The Green Mile -- on The Ainsley Harriot Show. The scene was remarkable: two large bald black men giggling and cavorting with one another on a morning talk show, talking about their dear and wise mothers, wearing aprons and shimmying their hips while flipping vegetables in fry pans, in front of an in-studio audience who looked a lot like the one you might expect for such a venue and activity: mostly white, youngish to middle-aged women, visibly delighted with the proceedings. This wasn't Oprah or Roseanne or even Queen Latifah's kind of daytime television. This was something else.

Of course, Michael Clarke Duncan is himself something else. He's as unlike a regular movie star as he can be. This isn't to say that he doesn't engage in very regular movie star activities: doing promotional tv stints, riding in limos, staying in four star hotels, and charging all his expenses on company plastic. But he's a very unusually happy movie star, a congenial former bouncer and bodyguard who, as a child, imagined being a football player. He has a booming laugh and travels on press tours with a small entourage of efficient and amicable people, whom he treats as friends rather than employees. And he's the first one to tell you that he can remember not so long ago, when he was worried about making the rent on his LA apartment.

He's doing press these days because of two movies, 1999's Green Mile and this year's The Whole Nine Yards. In the first, he plays a gentle giant of a man convicted of murdering two little white girls and sentenced to die, circa 1935. He spends his last days in a small Louisiana prison where he's overseen by Tom Hanks and other white guards. Blessed with a miraculous healing touch, Duncan saves some lives (a mouse and the warden's wife), shows remarkable dignity, generosity, and humility, then dies in the electric chair. His Oscar nomination has catapulted Duncan to the realm of A-list movie stars, an exceptional achievement for a guy who's 6'5"" and 315 pounds, that is, a huge black man, most obviously suited to playing thugs, bodyguards, and buddies for white guys.

In fact, the part Duncan plays in The Whole Nine Yards is one you might expect him to get: he plays Frankie Figs, amiable sidekick to Bruce Willis's Jimmy "the Tulip" Tudeski, a former hitman. As the film opens, Jimmy's turned state's evidence against his former employer, a Polish-born Chicago gangster named Janni Gogolack (Kevin Pollack, whose jokey accent turns "Jimmy" into "Yimmy"), and the feds have relocated him to the Montreal burbs. Eager -- or more precisely, willing -- to fit into his new environs, Jimmy makes friends with his nerdy-joe neighbor, a dentist named Oz Oseransky (Matthew Perry). This being a trendy mob-comedy (following in the footsteps of Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes), the situation is immediately complicated: Oz's bitchy French-Canadian wife Sophie (Roseanna Arquette) blackmails him into going to Chicago to rat out Jimmy and collect snitch money from Janni. Once there, Oz falls for Jimmy's gorgeous estranged wife Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge in Grace Kelly drag), who has access to a $10 million stash: this means that Oz is set on a course to betray his new friend Jimmy and get into assorted other dangers. The rest of the film involves much pratfalling (sight gags include Perry smashing into a sliding glass door and vomiting), with everyone trying to kill everyone else.

For all its physical hijinking, the film -- written by Mitchell Kapner and directed by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) -- is also a romance, but less screwball than you might guess. The primary relationship is Oz and Jimmy's, a couple who is clearly mismatched and so, clearly destined to work it out. Their romance is, of course, ritually interrupted by female competitors for their affections, namely, Sophie, Cynthia, and Jill (played with pizzazz by Amanda Peet, she's Oz's dental assistant and Jimmy's number one fan; that is, she's followed his career and aspires to be a hitperson like him). The women characters are, sorry to say, predictably routed toward their designated partners: upwardly mobile Oz wants a classy beauty, set-in-his-ways Jimmy wants an adoring firecracker, and as for Sophie, well, suffice to say, she pays a conventional price for her treachery and meanness.  The wrench in all this business is Frankie, Jimmy's fellow "Gogo" crime family employee. Initially, it appears that Frankie might be torn between loyalties, to Janni and Jimmy (an ambivalence that makes him a threat to our boy Oz, either way). But this ambiguity is quickly dispelled: Frankie is Jimmy's boy. And this is the rub, because, given that the film is formulated to pair off Oz and Jimmy, something must be done with (or to) Frankie; he must be handled. And that suggests that Frankie's position as the only black man in the middle of all this white folks business is not simply a function of "colorblind" casting (whatever that might mean). His blackness makes him stand out, as different from everyone around him, but also as the buddy in an interracial buddy dynamic. It's just too bad for Frankie that The Whole Nine Yards is not, in the end, an interracial buddy movie.

Frankie's position, in other words, is both awkward and instructive. He's pleasant and professional, patiently putting up with Oz's ridiculousness and instrumental in executing Jimmy's sneakiness. Frankie, following Jimmy's lead, appears to like Oz (or so he says), because the guy is moralistic and well-intentioned (despite the fact that he sleeps with his friend's wife). And Frankie loves Jimmy because, well, that's what he's supposed to do. Even aside from the fact that Duncan and Willis are offscreen friends (Willis picked him for Armageddon and recommended him for Green Mile), the two hitmen in The Whole Nine Yards share a history and worldview: some people deserve to die, some have to die, and some are expendable.

And this brings me back to that image of Duncan on The Ainsley Harriot Show, where he's so obviously affable and eager to please, so unlike the bruiser-bouncer stereotype that his size and muscle would seem to signify. He's so something else that The Whole Nine Yards can't -- or won't -- figure out how to deal with him as something other than a stereotype that might be easily discarded, not a character you might care for enough to fret over his evacuation. The film can't -- or won't -- sustain Frankie's relationship with Jimmy, because its comedy is premised on Oz's standard-issue success, his marriage, his romance, and Frankie is too other, too "something else." The film's inability to imagine another resolution is hardly surprising, but it is disappointing.

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