The comic premise of "Sour Grapes" is ingenious. Imagine your best friend hit the jackpot after you had lent him the money to play. The resulting strife is palpable, and sitcom vet Larry David takes the situation to comic extremes.

The comic premise of “Sour Grapes” is ingenious. Imagine your best friend hit the jackpot after you had lent him the money to play. The resulting strife is palpable, and sitcom vet Larry David takes the situation to comic extremes. While he doesn’t always hit a bull’s-eye, he’s generally on target. The film does suffer slightly from a first-timer’s awkwardness, but nonetheless delivers enough laughter and truth to generate solid returns from all revenue streams and turn the pic into a surprise spring hit.

Following an ill-conceived (and mercifully brief) flashback intro to the characters as boys, the pic gets on track as the two young men plot a trip to Atlantic City. Richie (Craig Bierko) is an unrepentant adolescent and the perfect boy to his adoring mother (Viola Harris). Cousin Evan (Steven Weber) takes on the mantle of maturity, in large part because he’s become a noted neurologist. Richie delights in finding ways to get his relative to unwind. A few days of gambling and shows with their girlfriends would seem to be a perfect plan.

But something unexpected occurs to spoil the weekend. After losing most of their wad at the tables, they sit down at the slot machines prior to dinner and proceed to deplete their small change. Down to his last quarter, Richie turns to Evan for two more coins for one last pull. The cylinders spin, coming to rest on three clusters of grapes. Alarms sound and lights flash, announcing a jackpot of a little more than $400,000.

The young man’s delight is infectious. But after the headiness subsides, Evan begins to harbor ill will. He reckons he deserves half for putting up the stake. Richie digs in his heels. They parry with logic that would make a Talmudic scholar’s head spin, but greed is in their hearts and eyes.

Money provides Richie with power he’s never before tasted. His boyish enthusiasm evolves into aggressive, nasty behavior. He insults his boss and is promptly fired from his job designing soles for athletic shoes. His girlfriend, Roberta (Robyn Peterman), tells him to change his ways, beginning with a peace offering to his cousin. Meanwhile, Evan’s mate, Joan (Karen Sillas), delivers an ultimatum to drop the money issue. The cousins try to make up, but Richie finds the gift of a jogging suit preposterous, and Evan is further agitated when he’s offered 3% of the winnings.

The idea of good intentions misfiring is a driving force of the humor in “Sour Grapes.” But bad intentions also provide hilarity here, and the domino effect each has on escalating the stakes is alarming, outrageous and very real. The spiraling scenario of revenge includes a willful misdiagnosis and a murder plot that involves a homeless man (Orlando Jones). It all has a fiendish invention that relies on the frailties of human nature.

Yet there’s an edginess that periodically spins out into crass overstatement. Richie’s mom is too much of a harridan of a Jewish matriarch, and low sexual comedy is used for easy laughs. These are unnecessary crutches in an otherwise clever and humorously realized movie. The story’s resolution is unexpected and delightfully satisfying.

The generally excellent cast is headed by Bierko, an appealing lout reminiscent of the affable characters that launched Michael Keaton’s career. The talented Weber at last has a bigscreen role that suits assets he’s skillfully displayed on TV. And Matt Keeslar is a hoot as a TV actor whose career is undone by Evan’s momentary lapse of judgment in the operating room.

David, co-creator of “Seinfeld” and a driving creative force of the sitcom through most of its life, is considerably less assured on the tech side in his bigscreen directorial debut. “Sour Grapes” has to rank as one of the unintentionally ugliest studio-financed productions of the decade. It’s lit much in the manner of TV comedy, which is to say bright and lacking in shadow or subtlety. There’s also little flair or drama in the helmer’s compositions, which favor static master shots. He does, however, come up with an unexpectedly perky and witty music score composed almost exclusively of classical pieces.

Still, if this is any indication of future David movie projects, we can assume that he’s a quick study and will evolve a more facile and appropriate visual style to complement his already considerable narrative strengths.

Sour Grapes

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Castle Rock production. Produced by Laurie Lennard. Executive producer, Barry Berg. Directed, written by Larry David.

With

Evan Maxwell - Steven Weber Richie Maxwell - Craig Bierko Danny Pepper - Matt Keeslar Joan - Karen Sillas Roberta - Robyn Peterman Selma Maxwell - Viola Harris Digby - Orlando Jones Millie - Jennifer Leigh Warren Detective Crouch - Richard Gant Detective Frehill - James MacDonald Nurse Loder - Sonya Eddy Mr. Bell - Philip Baker Hall Mrs. Drier - Ann Guilbert
Camera (Technicolor), Victor Hammer; editor, Priscilla Nedd-Friendly; production designer, Charles Rosen; art director, Chas. Butler; set decorator, Anne D. McCulley; costume designer, Debra McGuire; sound (Dolby; SDDS), Robert Janiger; assistant director, Daniel Silverberg; casting, Liberman/Hirschfeld. Reviewed at Sony Pictures studios, Culver City, April 8, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.
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