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Blue in the Face 

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Mickey Blue Eyes
Directed by Kelly Makin. Written by Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn. Starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, James Caan, Burt Young, and James Fox. Opens Friday at the Galaxy and the Sony Metreon.

Behold the plight of the American gangster. John Gotti, the Dapper Don, has been sent down the river. His big-time heavy, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, is famous and face-lifted for being a no-good dirty-rat stool pigeon. And Robert De Niro, the reigning deity of hoodlum heavies in films such as GoodFellas, Casino, and The Godfather Part II, was last seen not simply sending up his on-screen image, but actually taking career advice from Billy Crystal. Now look what they've done to poor Sonny Corleone.

All setup and no soul, Mickey Blue Eyes is the kind of movie that casts James Caan as a mobster, then gives him nothing to do. Caan got off better in The Godfather -- better a body full of bullets than a script full of blanks. It's also the type of film where floppy-haired Hugh Grant would try to blink and bumble his way into The Family without ... how youse guys say? ... showing a little respect.

Grant plays Michael Felgate, high-dollar auctioneer: witty, wispy, winsome. You know, a real adorable wanker who everyone in New York says talks funny and runs funny but who's really just English. Everything is great for Michael except that the auction house deliveries are always late and his girlfriend of three months, assuredly the girl of his dreams, doesn't want to marry him because her family is (yikes!) a crime family. Strangely -- or maybe just Englishly -- Felgate is not alarmed by such trivia and insists on the marriage, even though Gina (Jeanne Tripplehorn) warns him that the mob will rope him in no matter how hard he tries to stay clean. No sooner can Gina say, "A little favor, a tiny lie, and you're theirs," than crime boss "Uncle" Vito (Burt Young, Rocky's Paulie) has "fixed" the auction delivery problem and now wants Michael to do a little something for him. Naturally, it's an offer he can't refuse.

Whether you find the eloquent Hugh Grant reciting Al Pacino's lines from Donnie Brasco in a bad, faux-mush-mouthed Brooklyn accent hilarious or just dreadfully obvious, there's no denying that this is the paper-thin bit around which the entire film was conceived. Though shaped as a romantic comedy (because that's what gets Hugh Grant's audience into the seats), Mickey Blue Eyes should have been played strictly as an off-the-wall farce. There simply isn't much romance to be found, despite that whole marriage plot point (suggested title: Engaged to the Mob). In fact, the film takes on an odd and seemingly unintentional dark undertone when the betrothed couple (warning: plot spoiler dead ahead) kills Vito's son Johnny in what can only be described as accidental self-defense.

The movie, not willing to fully acknowledge the mess it's stepped in, soon grows staid, concerned less and less with getting laughs as it builds up suspense for its ridiculous finale, which involves a wedding, a few gangland hits, and an FBI sting. Isn't this a romantic comedy (our couple's connection to organized crime and manslaughter notwithstanding)? Don't we know they're going to live happily ever after (even if the filmmakers have to tack on a quick resolution to a Three's Company-style, jump-to-the-wrong-conclusion subplot to secure such an ending)?

Mickey Blue Eyes does have moments when its humor moves from genial and generic to wicked and sublime, but very few of them have anything to do with the gangster setup. (The most notable comes when Caan, playing Gina's father and one of Vito's underbosses, tortures a deadbeat associate by making him do challenging treadmill exercises.) Former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson squeezes some juice out of a nearly nonexistent role as an FBI agent, and the religious-tableau-meets-John Wayne Gacy artwork that Vito forces Michael to auction off reveals that somewhere, somebody associated with this film had a twisted edge. It's too bad the rest was done paint-by-numbers.

There are scenes that will woo Grant fans. A gangly striptease meant to distract his lady friend shows that Grant has a flair for physical comedy -- but no one ever said the man wasn't charming. Fact is, the biggest problem with Mickey Blue Eyes isn't Hugh Grant playing a guy playing at being a mobster. The film simply doesn't play enough with the material. Andrew Bergman's charming 1990 mob-movie homage, The Freshman, cast Marlon Brando as Carmine Sabatini, the kindly mobster on whom The Godfather's Vito Corleone was based. Nothing here is that inspired or clever. Mickey Blue Eyes is closer to Jane Austen's Mafia! than The Freshman.

Grant allegedly wrote some of Mickey Blue Eyes' script himself, a benefit of a relationship with co-producer Elizabeth Hurley. Maybe he should have followed some of his own advice: During the film, he reminds himself to "rent GoodFellas, Casino, Godfathers I, II, and III." And why not? They're funnier.

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Scott Kelton Jones

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