Middle of the Road

'Cletis Tout' achieves charming mediocrity without thrilling highs or groaning lows.

Christian Slater hasn't had a hit since 1996's Broken Arrow, so like a lot of actors who want to pretend to have integrity while trying to save their careers, he's gone and done an indie-style film (with a major distributor, of course). Thus, Who Is Cletis Tout?, which also stars Tim Allen, who probably feels he could use a little credibility after finding out that he's too lowbrow for even the Emmys.

Cletis Tout is patterned after old film-noirs, only, because this is the early 21st century, and self-referential films came to the fore, overstayed their welcome, and vanished into the dust-heap of history in the 1990s, Tout is a self-referential noir. It's kind of like instant retro for the past decade, or maybe just a writer-director who's half a step behind the times.

But still, in spite of all the bad things you could say about Cletis Tout (and for that, see below) it winds up being a rather charming mediocrity. It's kind of like watching your 10-year-old nephew put on a magic show. Sure, there are all kinds of mistakes and you can see everything coming from a mile away, but it's just so darn cute you don't even care.

Tout begins with Christian Slater, as a man whose name may or may not be Cletis Tout, being captured by Tim Allen, who plays a man whose name is apparently Critical Jim.

Critical Jim, it seems, is a film buff and hit-man, which, if you think about it, is a combo that makes a lot of sense (see, for example, Roger Ebert's list of felony murder convictions, and extrapolate from there to the kind of evil that Michael Medved is no doubt perpetrating even as you read this). He's been assigned to kill Cletis Tout, but Slater claims not to be this Tout. Rather, he has a cinematic story of how he has been mistaken for this fella.

This intrigues Critical Jim, who wants to hear, and, of course, criticize this story. Thus the flashbacks, in which Christian Slater explains how it is that he is not the wanted Cletis Tout, but rather the hapless noir-hero Trevor Finch.

So far so good, except that Critical Jim keeps interrupting to make self-referential comments, most of which are a bit shallow and obvious. About the best of the lot is when he tells Trevor Finch that he sounds just like Jack Nicholson. Which is funny. Because film-goers have long noted that Christian Slater sounds just like Jack Nicholson. And Trevor Finch is played by Christian Slater.

Luckily, Slater doesn't overact the way Jack Nicholson does, nor is he incapable of handling something as difficult to handle as, say the truth. Thus, in reasonably restrained tones, Finch relates how, whilst a prisoner in what can only be a prison, he met the resourceful Micah Donnelly, an older gent who claimed to have a stash of diamonds hidden away in the outside world.

Now, if only Finch and Donnelly can escape from jail and hook up with Donnelly's beautiful daughter Tess (played by Portia de Rossi), then many a jewel will be theirs for the polishing.

But, oh no, what if Finch and Tess immediately don't like each other, and then begin to fall in love? That surely would never happen. So don't even think about it.

Of course, Critical Jim loves all these details because they sound like every old movie he's ever seen. He even starts to interject direction, like "we need a romantic interest," and "no, that's no good, you've got to have conflict." Most of the lines fall flat, but they never seem to truly impede the flow of the story.

What does get in the way are some of the ridiculous plot holes and leaps in logic. At one point, Finch has to convince the police to put him in jail, but not just any jail: Rather, he must go to a specific jail, and be allowed to dig a garden in a specific corner of the well-kept lawn of this jail, and must also be allowed to bring his carrier pigeons with him. Because, if there's one thing that the Rodney King affair taught us, it's that the police are dedicated to providing detailed service.

Still, in spite of all this (and more) Tout is a thoroughly diverting 92 minutes. You won't be checking your watch, or your Palm Pilot appointment list, or your blood insulin level or whatever it is you check when bored. Christian Slater does the same Christian Slater act he's always done, so there's no ugly or beautiful surprises there. Tim Allen is prevented from doing his own material here, and that's a plus. Portia de Rossi as Tess is pretty and mediocre, and Richard Dreyfuss as her father basically phones in a perfect performance. While lacking any real high points, there are also no groaning lows, and that may make Tout the perfect excuse to enjoy movie-theater air-conditioning and a $15 cup of cola.

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