Neither a pleasant surprise nor a total disaster, "Almost Heroes" is a fitfully funny period comedy that will be remembered best as the final bigscreen effort of the late Chris Farley.

Neither a pleasant surprise nor a total disaster, “Almost Heroes” is a fitfully funny period comedy that will be remembered best as the final bigscreen effort of the late Chris Farley. As such, pic may generate interest among longtime fans and the morbidly curious. But this long-delayed Warners release, which opened nationwide May 29 without press previews, isn’t likely to attract a wider audience until it reaches homevideo.

Written by sitcom vets Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe and Boyd Hale, “Almost Heroes” plays like an old-fashioned road-movie comedy spiked with broadly played slapstick and bits of Monty Pythoneque zaniness. Direction by Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman”) is surprisingly bland, especially during the early, unpromising scenes that introduce Farley as Bartholomew Hunt, a hard-drinking and robustly rude tracker who joins an 1804 mission to blaze a trail to the Pacific Northwest.

Opening sequence, which has Farley’s character led to the gallows and nearly strangled with a noose, is more than a little discomforting. (Hunt has been condemned, apparently, for the major crime of being drunk and disorderly.) Just in time, the execution is halted by Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry), a foppishly fussy fellow who wants to earn a place in the history books by beating Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean. Armed with a pardon signed by President Thomas Jefferson, Edwards frees Hunt, but his motives are far from selfless: He needs the tracker’s help for his glory-seeking endeavor.

Others enlisted for the cross-country trek over land and water include Fontenot (Eugene Levy), a French explorer who claims vast knowledge of Native American dialects; Shaquinna (Lisa Barbuscia) Fontenot’s beautiful Indian mistress; Bidwell (David Packer), who remains enthusiastic about the journey even after losing a few body parts; Pratt (Hamilton Camp), a wizened eccentric; and Jonah (Bokeem Wood-bine), Edwards’ personal manservant (i.e., slave).

Early on, it becomes clear that, for all his fatuous self-assurance, Edwards is out of his element in the wilds. Whenever the party camps for the night, he lounges about his tent in a paisley robe and insists on relaxing in a warm bath. Meanwhile, it becomes equally clear that, as long as he remains sober, Hunt is unexpectedly competent at his job. Trouble is, he has a nasty habit of scaring the other men with his vivid descriptions of wild beasts and marauding Indians.

Throughout the film, Farley repeatedly devours the scenery while offering variations of his trademark wild-man riffs. Even so, he manages to remain in character and none-too-subtly indicates that Hunt is much smarter — or at least more experienced — than he looks. (It’s distressing to consider a singularly creepy irony: The late John Candy played a similar frontiersman in his last movie, “Wagons East.”) Farley works well opposite the more restrained Perry, but his funniest moments have him flying solo as Hunt tries to snatch eggs from the nest of a vigilant eagle.

Perry effectively plays Edwards as a self-absorbed twit who slowly evolves into a selfless man of action. Rather than being overshadowed by his more boisterous co-star, Perry actually dominates a fair share of scenes with his skillful underplaying, making the film less a star vehicle than a genuine collaboration between equals.

Among the supporting players, a nearly unrecognizable Kevin Dunn is a standout with his grandiloquent silliness as Hidalgo, a villainous Spanish conquistador with unseemly pride in his hair. Barbuscia has relatively little to do, but she draws attention to herself anyway, if only because of her striking resemblance to Natalie Wood in “The Searchers.”

Pacing is too slack for pic to ever achieve a satisfying comic momentum, and the limp ending is a real letdown.

Production values, including ace color lensing by Adam Kimmel and Kenneth MacMillan, are appropriately lush for an outdoor adventure. Much of the comedy was shot on location in Northern California and the Big Bear region.

Spinal Tap fans, take note: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest’s erstwhile band mate, receives billing as “project consultant.” Whatever that means.

Almost Heroes

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Turner Pictures presentation of a Di Novi Pictures production. Produced by Denise Di Novi. Co-producer, Mary Kane. Directed by Christopher Guest. Screenplay, Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe, Boyd Hale.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Adam Kimmel, Kenneth MacMillan; editor, Ronald Roose; music, Jeffery CJ Vanston; production designer, Joseph Garrity; art director, Pat Tagliaferro; set decorator, Linda Allen; costume designer, Durinda Wood; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Mark Weingarten; assistant director, Christian P. Della Penna; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown 290, Houston, May 29, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Bartholomew Hunt - Chris Farley Leslie Edwards - Matthew Perry Guy Fontenot - Eugene Levy Hidalgo - Kevin Dunn Shaquinna - Lisa Barbuscia Jonah - Bokeem Woodbine Higgins - Steven M. Porter Bidwell - David Packer Pratt - Hamilton Camp Merchant - Lewis Arquette Jackson - Patrick Crenshaw Father Girard - Christian Clemenson

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