“2 Days in the Valley” will rank high on any list of films containing the greatest number of scenes in which people are threatened at gunpoint. Marked by a wearying amount of hostile and antisocial behavior by its criminal and civilian characters alike, writer-director John Herzfeld’s debut outing features a measure of unexpected humor and some good character work by the ensemble cast. Pic does offer some entertainment value for mainstream audiences, but B.O. fate of this sub-Altmanesque mosaic will depend upon how sated the public feels at the moment with incessant gun-waving and bloodletting, with modest returns the likely bet.
Using Hollywood’s favorite poster boys for the ’90s, hit men, as the central figures in this study of suburban malaise and hostility, pic lands some effective, unexpected shots here and there, but is not deeply eccentric or muscular enough to score any decisive blows. Nor does it pull back from its characters to offer anything resembling a critique of society or commentary on why nearly everyone the film encounters in the San Fernando Valley is so thoroughly unhappy or obnoxious.
The hired killers in question are Lee (James Spader) and Dosmo (Danny Aiello) , the former a slick sicko of the new school, the latter a lowlife Italian mensch whose profession doesn’t preclude his having a heart. Lee has engaged the has-been to help kill Roy (Peter Horton), ex-hubby of Olympic skier Becky (Teri Hatcher), with the intention of then knocking off Dosmo, making it look as though he committed the murder, then taking off with blonde g.f. Helga (Charlize Theron) and a $ 30,000 stash.
But Dosmo gets away, only to invade the lives of arrogant British art dealer Allan (Greg Cruttwell) and his beleaguered assistant, Susan (Glenne Headly). The disheveled Dosmo and the mousy Susan quickly recognize one another as soul mates , and Dosmo is moved to cook a good pasta repast for his hostages, while brandishing a gun, of course.
Other important characters who are eventually brought into the violent swirl of events are Allan’s sister, nurse Audrey (Marsha Mason), whose skills come in handy when the blood starts flowing; suicidal washed-up director Teddy (Paul Mazursky) and vice cops Alvin (Jeff Daniels) and Wes (Eric Stoltz), first seen at odds over the merits of busting an Asian massage parlor.
Herzfeld’s dovetailing of story strands and heretofore unrelated characters is smooth and unforced, and their sudden combustion makes for a number of lively , surprising scenes. Dosmo’s persistent revulsion over the whiny art dealer’s self-centered complaining, and his growing affection for the sweet Susan, provide some delight, and Teddy’s about-face triggered by adverse circumstances offers satisfaction as well. Connoisseurs of female brawls have a doozy in store here, as Hatcher and Theron, both gorgeous and in great shape, go at each other as if they really mean it in a wild sequence.
Unfortunately, the film’s modest pleasures don’t add up to anything more than that. At this stage in the violence-as-a-way-of-life cycle, it is reasonable to require something different in the way of point of view or comedic slant. Herzfeld, a vet TV writer-director, succeeds in establishing and sustaining an offbeat tone of loony amorality, but it’s not terribly appealing.
To the director’s credit, the actors all seem responsive to his touch, giving performances that are lively and flavorsome, if not deep or unlike anything each of them has done before. Aiello’s wayward paisano and Headly’s late-blooming flower hold particular appeal, while Mazursky and Austin Pendleton, the latter in a one-scene appearance, enact an exchange of comic career abasement that will particularly amuse tradesters.
Stylistically, film is proficient but unexceptional. There is plenty of blood for a semi-comedy, and a scene involving Stoltz’s response to an Oriental massage is quite risque for a Hollywood pic.