With more than a dozen credited producers of one sort or another and a list of missed release dates almost as long, writer-director Chris Ver Wiel’s “Who Is Cletis Tout?” feels like it’s been sitting around gathering dust for longer than its copyright date of 2000. “Tout” is a convoluted comic caper that labors to affect a lighthearted, off-the-cuff feel, and winds up being a copy of a copy of a bad Tarantino-Elmore Leonard forgery, with Tim Allen as a glib cinephile hitman. Answer to the film’s title will be sought by few moviegoers, now or in pic’s soon-to-be vid afterlife.
Cletis Tout is a wanted man — an ambulance-chasing tabloid television reporter who one night accidentally videotapes a mob boss’s son strangling a blonde hooker to death. Tout tries to blackmail the mob boss, but somehow fails to realize he’s setting up his own execution in the process. Can he really be surprised when he gets fatally shot and then burned to a crisp by a couple of bungling Mafiosos?
But the story doesn’t really concern Tout. Rather, it revolves around recently escaped con Trevor Finch (Christian Slater), who finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun belonging to hitman Critical Jim (Allen), just as (we later find out) Finch is about to skip town having pulled off an ingenious heist. The Mob has mistaken Finch for Tout, believing they killed the wrong man the first go-round, and has hired Jim to finish him off. But because of Jim’s appetite for the dramatic, he decides to hear Finch’s story out. “Pitch me,” he deadpans.
Pic jumps back and forth in time, occasionally lapping back over parts of the story we’ve seen before (a la the heist at the end of “Jackie Brown”), as Finch spins his cinematic tale of a prison break, buried treasure and mistaken identity. Three weeks earlier, Finch busted from the pen along with magician-turned-jewel-thief Micah (Richard Dreyfuss), who longs to reunite with his daughter (Portia De Rossi) and unearth the cache of stolen diamonds. Once they’re in the clear, Finch calls in an old favor owed to him by a Scottish coroner (Billy Connolly), setting Micah and himself up with new identities. Only Finch ends up as Tout, and a whole world of trouble. Complicating matters further, those diamonds Micah buried under a tree now happen to be located just a few feet on the wrong side of a minimum-security prison.
There are further complications, and still more twists and more turns, as though Ver Wiel were in a contest competing with “Double Indemnity” (one of Critical Jim’s favorites). And there are lots of implausibilities, lots of points in the story where Finch seems to know far more than he reasonably could about Tout and his endeavors. The brightest light burning here by far is Allen, who has pic’s liveliest role and plays it with gusto. From his entrance, weeping over a revival screening of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to his exit, literally dancing out of frame in an homage to “Singin’ in the Rain,” Allen gives the movie all he’s got, even though he doesn’t get much back. He’s all jumpy and excitable here, in contrast to the laconic charm he usually projects, and it’s great fun to watch him get hooked on Finch’s story, interjecting notes here and there, helping to “rewrite” the ending. After a fashion, you wish the movie were called “Who Is Critical Jim?” and that it could run off with Allen on another zany adventure or two.
There’s a brashness to the way Ver Wiel sticks to his guns even when it’s obvious his whole shaky enterprise isn’t working. But it’s a kind of brashness better rumored than known.
Shot in widescreen by the veteran cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski, print previewed had numerous inconsistencies in color timing. Randy Edelman’s bouncy score is over the top.