Evidencing all the restraint of a Ritalin-deprived class clown who’s just O.D.’d on sugar sandwiches, John Leguizamo tears through “The Pest” like something newly unleashed from the inkwell of a demented cartoonist. Aggressively tasteless and utterly shameless, he makes Jim Carrey seem like Perry Como. A very little bit of his frenetic, full-throttle shtick goes a long, long way, and 82 minutes of it may be more than most sentient grown-ups can stand. Even so, “The Pest” may be just exuberantly dumb enough to score an against-all-odds, midlevel B.O. success.
Like it or loathe it, you have to give “The Pest” this much: Right at the start, the pic lets you know what you’re in for. During the opening credits, Leguizamo dances and prances in the shower while singing a rap-style ditty in celebration of himself. The number — which is repeated under the closing credits — contains at least one booger joke, two flatulence gags and a great deal of hard-sell zaniness. Leguizamo mimics everyone from Jerry Lewis to Count Dracula, and generally does his best to convince us that he’s a lovable imp as well as a jubilant con artist.
There is more than a touch of the “Ace Ventura” comedies to this enterprise, and that may be the key to its appeal if it does indeed click with young male audiences. The title character is even more of a live-action cartoon than Ace, but not nearly as threatening.
Leguizamo is supposed to be Pestario Vargas, better known as Pest, one of the more disreputable denizens of Miami’s Little Havana. Pest is a small-time scam artist who specializes in rigged shell games and other penny-ante frauds. For reasons never clearly explained, Pest owes $50,000 to “the Scottish mob,” burly gangsters who wear kilts and speak in heavy brogues. (Their leader, played by Charles Hallahan, frets because his outfit doesn’t get as much respect as “the Italians.”) So Pest spends much of his time avoiding the mob’s leg-breakers by disguising himself as, among other things, a Chinese delivery boy for a take-out restaurant.
The main plot, more or less lifted from “The Most Dangerous Game,” calls for Pest to sign what he thinks is an application for a $50,000 scholarship from an eccentric German businessman. But the businessman, Gustav Shank (Jeffrey Jones), really is a sociopathic big-game hunter who enjoys stalking human prey. With the help of his henchman (Tom McCleister), Gustav brings Pest to his private island for a hunting party. It doesn’t take long before Pest discovers that he is the party to be hunted.
As Pest, Leguizamo is so provocatively and indefatigably obnoxious that some viewers probably will root for Gustav as he tries to shoot the little fellow. But our hero does manage to win over an important ally: Himmel (Edoardo Ballerini), Gustav’s effeminate son, a borderline-offensive gay caricature. In the hope of earning Pest’s gratitude, Himmel helps Pest escape from the island aboard a boat. Predictably, this leads to a scene in which both characters become seasick, to the point of repeatedly vomiting into the water and, eventually, on each other.
Everything leads to a madcap chase through Little Havana, as Pest — aided by buddies Chubby (Aries Spears) and Ninja (Freddy Rodriguez) — tries to remain one step ahead of Gustav. The trail leads from the home of Pest’s girlfriend through a trendy nightclub, and ultimately to a showdown aboard a cargo ship. Along the way, Pest pretends to be an Orthodox rabbi, a Japanese businessman and an African-garbed black firebrand.
If Leguizamo were any less playful, some of this equal-opportunity offensiveness would come across as ethnic slurring. For all his swagger however, Leguizamo basically is a harmless goof, and his impersonations are no more mean-spirited than his mimicry of Bugs Bunny, Beavis and Butt-head and each of the Three Stooges.
Written by David Bar Katz, a veteran of Leguizamo’s short-lived “House of Buggin’ ” TV series, and based on an original story by Katz and Leguizamo, “The Pest” is a pretty flimsy star vehicle. Pic exists solely to showcase Leguizamo’s wild and crazy antics, which are very much an acquired taste. Most of the supporting characters are underwritten and overshadowed, though Jones has a few comical moments as the repeatedly frustrated Gustav. Director Paul Miller does little more than keep the camera firmly affixed on his star, and make sure everything stays in focus.
Tech values are sharp. Special note must be made of the vibrant production design of Rodger E. Maus and the spirited cinematography of Roy H. Wagner. Colorful locations in Miami’s Little Havana are aptly chosen and well utilized.