Upholding the tradition of late-August as a time for minor efforts, "Serving Sara" is little more than a mall movie designed to kill time. Pic marks an improvement over helmer Reginald Hudlin's "SNL" spinoff laffer, "The Ladies' Man," and Paramount's "Rat Race," which opened about this time last year.

Upholding the tradition of late-August as a time for minor efforts, “Serving Sara” is little more than a mall movie designed to kill time. Pic marks an improvement over helmer Reginald Hudlin’s “SNL” spinoff laffer, “The Ladies’ Man,” and Paramount’s “Rat Race,” which opened about this time last year. This new comedy, tracking a subpoena server’s adventures from Gotham to Texas, won’t be enough to kick star Matthew Perry up the movie comedy ladder. Notably diminishing laughs will match B.O.

“Serving Sara’s” flicker of chemistry between Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, as a soon-to-be divorcee he’s trying to serve with a writ, is neutralized by a general lack of panache. Watching pic’s lack of style, it’s easy to imagine what a writer like Elmore Leonard, with instincts for impulsive fringe-of-the-law characters, could do with this material, or, in an earlier screen era, what Stanley Donen or Billy Wilder may have wrought.

Opening bit sets the lame tone, as Perry’s Joe Tyler goes through strained paces to subpoena a mobster. Things get better when Joe has to deal with his overworked boss Ray (Cedric the Entertainer) and competition from fellow server Tony (Vincent Pastore), who Joe ultimately learns has been tipping off Joe’s “marks” — folks he’s assigned to serve. These include Sara Moore (Hurley), who thinks she’s happily married to Texas cattle tycoon Gordon Moore (Bruce Campbell) but is actually getting dumped by him.

Sara, in New York, initially eludes Joe, who is armed with the divorce notice. Eventually, however, he gets the papers into stupefied Sara’s hands using blatantly poor disguises (and Perry’s weak impersonations). Script’s one clever gambit is when Sara, learning she’ll get a better settlement in wife-friendly N.Y. than pro-husband Texas, offers Joe $1 million to toss out the subpoena and instead serve Gordon with papers in Lone Star state.

This sly move sets off a cross-country chase, with Joe placing false clues for Tony (who’s pursuing Sara on Ray’s orders) to lead him off the trail into dead-ends like Miami and Bangor, Maine. Joe and Gordon finally meet for the finale during an extreme sports rally in Dallas’ Union Arena.

All too frequently, Joe feels like an obstacle-ridden character type from a screenwriting workshop. While the central idea of a subpoena server encountering roadblocks is a sound one, the form those roadblocks take in “Serving Sara” (ranging from groin-busting gym vixens to sexually stimulating bulls on Gordon’s ranch) has all the grace of a butt to the head.

Pastore and Cedric are in fine form, enlivening the office clashes involving Tony and Ray — the latter amusingly never leaving an office that’s stuffed with stress-reducing devices. Whatever sexual frissons pass between Perry and Hurley are kept on simmer. And because so little screen time is used to fill in the details of his two-timing Texan, Campbell has no real chance to show off his wonderful knack for self-mockery in a vaguely written role.

The visually mundane results scream out for a craftier production assembly that would have been able to play up the contrasts between Manhattan and Longhorn country. Francine Jamison-Tanchuck has fun costuming Hurley and Amy Adams as Gordon’s new g.f., neither of whom are too shy to strut in front of the camera. The further composer Marcus Miller gets from his jazz roots, the more unsure his music.

Serving Sara

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures presentation of an Illusion/Halsted Pictures production. Produced by Dan Halsted. Executive producer, Dan Kolsrud. Directed by Reginald Hudlin. Screenplay, Jay Scherick, David Ronn.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Robert Brinkmann; editor, Jim Miller; music, Marcus Miller; music supervisors, Mathew Walden, Byron Phillips; production designer, Rusty Smith; art directors, J. Grey Smith, Drew Boughton; set decorator, Carla Curry; costume designer, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Stacy Brownrigg; supervising sound editor, Gregory Hedgepath; special effects coordinator, Richard E. Perry; special animatronic cow and bull effects, Rob Bottin; associate producer, David C. Scheer; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Heidi Levitt, Monika Mikkelsen. Reviewed at AMC Beverly Connection, L.A., Aug. 9, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Joe Tyler - Matthew Perry Sara Moore - Elizabeth Hurley Gordon Moore - Bruce Campbell Kate - Amy Adams Tony - Vincent Pastore Ray Harris - Cedric the Entertainer Vernon - Terry Crews Milton the Cop - Jerry Stiller Fat Charlie - Joe Viterelli

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