Highly reminiscent of “Kingpin” in its willingness to try anything for a laugh, “Dirty Work” is a shameless and sporadically hilarious comedy about two thirtysomething underachievers who start a revenge-for-hire business. Pic lacks sufficient pizzazz and marquee power to be anything more than a midrange B.O. performer, and likely will get lost in the summer shuffle. But if it connects with a large enough segment of its target audience — under-25 males — word of mouth could generate decent ancillary biz down the line.
Norm Macdonald, the recently jettisoned “Weekend Update” anchor of “Saturday Night Live,” plays his first bigscreen lead as Mitch Weaver, a chronically unemployable smart aleck. Early scenes show how the character (played as a youngster by Bradley Reid and Matthew Steinberg) developed his personal credo, “Don’t take any crap from anybody.” When a bully tries to steal his milk money, young Mitch slips real guns into his tormentor’s desk, leading to the bad boy’s arrest. A crossing guard who grabs the backsides of children gets an equally imaginative comeuppance.
As an adult, Mitch is much more successful at plotting revenge than finding gainful employment. Along with his longtime buddy Sam McKenna (“Mad TV” vet Artie Lange), he devises an especially ingenious plan to pay back rowdy frat-house guys who get the best of them in a barroom brawl. But when Sam’s father (Jack Warden) needs $ 50,000 for a heart transplant, the two friends decide it’s time to mix business with pleasure.
After earning small change for pulling a nasty trick on a tyrannical movie-house manager (Don Rickles), Mitch and Sam open Dirty Work Inc., a business dedicated to providing revenge at reasonable rates. A typical stunt: They embarrass a cranky auto dealer during a live TV commercial by hiring prostitutes to pose as corpses in the trunks of showcased cars.
Mitch and Sam are temporarily outwitted by Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald) , a millionaire real-estate developer who’s greatly upset when Dirty Work Inc. sabotages his plans to raze a sweet old lady’s home. Cole hires the tricksters to trash an apartment building so he can have it condemned and torn down. The problem is, Cole doesn’t own the building. It turns out that the grandmother of Mitch’s sweetie, Kathy (Traylor Howard), is one of the building’s tenants. Of course, this means war.
Macdonald, who co-wrote the uneven screenplay with Frank Sebastiano and Fred Wolf, doesn’t exactly stretch himself here. Indeed, his performance is a slightly more engaging variation of his “Weekend Update” shtick. Despite his occasional stiffness, however, Macdonald demonstrates an effective deadpan insouciance, along with a welcome willingness to make himself the butt of many jokes. As his partner in crime, Lange is amusing but generally overshadowed.
“Dirty Work” doesn’t get the most out of its promising premise — the outrageousness isn’t consistently sustained — and the pic tends to peter out somewhere around the two-thirds mark. Lackadaisical direction by first-time helmer Bob Saget doesn’t help much. Far too often, actors begin scenes with obvious tentativeness, as though they’re not entirely sure they heard someone yell “Action!”
On the plus side, a few moments of throwaway lunacy are positively inspired, and Macdonald’s wisecracks punch up many of the dead spots. Chevy Chase has a brief but slyly amusing bit as a surgeon whose compulsive gambling leads him to strike the deal for the $ 50,000 heart transplant. And Warden is robustly lascivious as a dirty old man who, all things considered, would probably rather spend the $ 50,000 on Viagra.
The late Chris Farley, one of several unbilled cameo players, plays a bellowing barfly who claims the tip of his nose was bitten off by a prostitute. Much funnier, however, is a slightly surreal appearance by former child star Gary Coleman.
Tech values are average. On a couple of occasions, it’s obvious that some dialogue was dubbed over during post-production, perhaps to avoid a more restrictive MPAA rating.