If movies came with stage directions for how audiences might react -- "audience cheers," "audience screams" -- there would be one scene in Who Is Cletis Tout? that'd be marked "audience leaves." Not with the huffy fanfare -- popcorn boxes rattling, purses gathered up with vehemence -- that a really bad movie inspires. No, Cletis isn't memorably vile enough to merit that hot and self-righteous exeunt stage left. Rather, audiences should depart with the calm feeling of taking their lives back, the empowering thought that perhaps there is something better to do than be held hostage by a winkingly self-referential bore of a movie.
That "audience leaves" moment comes early. Critical Jim (Tim Allen), film hound and hit man, is holding forth on modern-day movies. "Concentrate on the gimmick, and the audience leaves unfulfilled," he says. "There's nothing like an old movie. Nobody remembers their job at the movies." He tut-tuts at his captive audience, Trevor Finch (Christian Slater), trussed up tighter than a turkey.
It is an uncomfortable moment, sitting there in the theater. Who am I? Critical Jim, the hair-trigger film critic/hit man, or the hapless Finch? I empathize with Jim's irritation at a gimmicky movie (which Cletis is, of course, despite its attempts to be cleverly self-aware). Yet I remember that my job is to watch the movie, and for the next two hours, I feel Finch's pain more -- tied up, trapped, and desperately wanting to return to my real life.
Director Chris Ver Wiel clearly loves movies. He salts Cletis with so many film references that watching it is like trying to converse with guys who speak entirely in movie quotes: "If you don't tell me, I'm gonna get medieval on your ass"; "Oh yeah, but you can't! handle! the! truth!" Unlike most guys, however, Ver Wiel doesn't quote from Pulp Fiction or A Few Good Men. He prefers the old, swaggering classics, such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Dirty Dozen. But a classic sensibility doesn't a classic product make; Ver Wiel doesn't seem to understand that quoting great movies doesn't make yours better, it makes your stinker look worse.
Like the movie, Finch suffers from an identity crisis. An escaped ex-con, he's taken on the name of Cletis Tout, a man who turns out to be hunted by both the police and the Mob. When the movie opens, Jim has Finch holed up in hotel room until the Mob's money makes it into Jim's bank account. At that point Finch will be toast. Until then, though, Jim's got time to spare, and he loves a good story. Lucky for him, Finch has one, and it's a doozy: a prison break, a magician friend (Richard Dreyfuss as Micah) who squirreled away a fortune in diamonds in a field, the magician's daughter (Portia de Rossi as Tess) and the obligatory sassy-yet-vulnerable love interest.
This story is told in flashback, interrupted by Jim's periodic explosions as he tries to recast Finch's "movie." Jim wants a third act, he doesn't like too many flashbacks, Finch has to get the girl! Too bad Jim has nothing to say about the movie he himself is in, with its dialogue that tries for gangster toughness but just ends up being gross. There was one particular joke about "smoke up my ass" and "rectal cancer" that I'm still trying to forget. Too bad Jim doesn't question the wisdom of writing so many voice-overs for Slater's whiny pipes, or of letting de Rossi transfer her annoying actorly tic -- smirking as she delivers her most evil lines, as if to take the sting out -- from her icy character on Ally McBeal to this new role. Most of all, if Jim was really doing his Critical job, he would have something to say about Cletis' clunking lack of originality, its attempt to earn greatness by shoplifting from it.
One scene presents an unwittingly apt metaphor for watching Cletis. Micah performs tricks in front of a crowd and then disappears inside a giant, red balloon. A small film projector clicks away inside it, casting the image of the magician on the balloon's surface for the delighted audience. But the real Micah is missing. He runs into a tunnel, enters a vault and lifts the diamonds.
The best movies can trick audiences into thinking that what they're seeing is real -- the characters' dilemmas are hugely important, the landscape and the story can swallow memories of the outside world whole. Cletis doesn't do that, but it does try to convince us that we are as helpless to its movie-loving ways as Finch is to Jim. And like the swindled bank guards, by the time we regain our senses, the bad guy is long gone. And he's taken our two hours with him.