There’s a germ of a very funny idea in “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag” that extends well beyond its offbeat title. But pic’s amusing premise is undone by lackluster direction, a script unwilling to go the limit of its bizarre central idea and some botched casting. The film has a couple of wacky sequences that work, but theatrical prospects are no better than OK, its only commercial future hinging on developing a cult following forgiving of the movie’s shortcomings.
The titular “heads” are an octet of East Coast goons ordered to be hit by a suspicious L.A. mob boss. He wants literal proof of their demise, so the “boys” devise a way of lopping off their noggins, draining them of blood and squeezing them into a carry-on bag. Dale Carnegie dropout Tommy Spinelli (Joe Pesci) gets the unenviable task of playing courier.
Tommy creates a diversion and gets his unusual cargo on board. But wouldn’t you know it, his baggage is put in the hold when his overhead area is needed to accommodate an organ transplant. Arriving in San Diego, he picks up his bag only to discover it’s a look-alike. Rifling through the duffel, he discovers a script and an address for the guy who presumably has his valuable package.
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The picture serves up the classic farce situation of switched identical items with a macabre nod to “Weekend at Bernie’s.” The hapless holder of the sought-after luggage is Charlie Pritchett (Andy Comeau), a med student who’s visiting his girlfriend, Laurie Bennett (Kristy Swanson), en route to a Mexican vacation with her family. As he’s drawn into the whirlwind of the snooty clan, Charlie is oblivious to the fact that he’s snatched the wrong bag. It’s dipsomaniac Mom (Dyan Cannon) who stumbles onto the gruesome contents and, of course, comes to the wrong conclusion — Charlie’s a serial killer.
Writer and first-time director Tom Schulman has complicated and slowed what should have been a breathless romp. While the horror of the situation is sinking in for the boy and girl, Tommy plods back to Maryland to shake down Charlie’s roommates and pick up his trail. Too much of pic keeps Charlie and Tommy separated by thousands of miles when Tommy should be within striking distance to maintain story’s tension.
Pesci has honed his slightly irritating, hair-trigger violent screen persona to a fine edge and gives it comic potency by downplaying its extremes. Pic also has effective turns from Swanson as the girlfriend and George Hamilton as her father, definitely not a fan of the boy. They’re shrewd enough to play it straight and let the comedy flow from the situation.
The performers who wind up in trouble play it broad and shrill. Cannon is a too-familiar screen drunk, and David Spade is tiresome in yet another smart-ass part. But least up to the task is newcomer Comeau, who’s a bundle of unfocused energy in desperate need of an infusion of charm.
A great achievement is the inspired eight heads by makeup artists Greg Cannom and Keith Vanderlaan. The frozen expressions animate much of the humor and display considerably greater wit than is otherwise in evidence.
Schulman displays little evidence of directorial talent in this visually passable, badly paced tyro effort. His script is several drafts short of being camera-ready and in desperate need of a real comic collaborator.