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Review: Make-believe mayhem in 'Clay Pigeons'

Web posted on: Monday, October 05, 1998 2:29:12 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've got a lot of respect for three of the actors who appear in "Clay Pigeons," although a couple of them test that respect big-time before the movie's over. Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, and (especially) Janeane Garofalo always give solid performances, even in less-than-solid movies.

That Vaughn and Phoenix stink things up this time isn't the biggest problem with "Clay Pigeons," though. The movie, written by Matt Healey and directed by first-timer David Dobkin, mostly suffers because it's one of those post-Coen Brothers crime thingys that goes to extremes to make sure that everyone knows the filmmakers are too painfully cool to really mean anything they're showing you.

Theatrical preview for "Clay Pigeons"
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It's ironic, you see. The story is set in a small town, so the authority figures are dumb and leaning towards dumber. There's a mass murderer, but he's kinda cute and amusingly self-knowing for a mass murderer.

Smirk-smirk, nudge-nudge

And the murders themselves -- not to mention the gruesome discoveries of the stabbed or bloated bodies -- are padded out with inappropriately goofy dialogue and "offbeat" character quirks. This is because if you really felt something when you saw a person getting stabbed to death (or shot in the back during sex) you wouldn't be cool and hip and ironic. Smirk-smirk. Nudge. Smirk.

Phoenix plays Clay, a local redneck lug who's having an affair with his friend Earl's sexy wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates, firmly constructed, but a one-note soloist). The opening sequence is fairly clever, I guess. The two friends are out shooting at bottles when Earl (played by Gregory Sporleder, but not for long) turns the gun on himself. He's been distraught since finding out about the affair, so (since he can't bring himself to shoot another person) he strategically commits suicide in order to get Clay convicted of murder. It seems to me that any forensics specialist would be able to detect that Clay didn't do the shooting, but okay.

Clay panics, and tries to get rid of the body ... no thanks to Amanda. She couldn't care less about the wellbeing of Clay or Earl, except that she still likes having sex with Clay. So now she's blackmailing him into staying with her.

Clay, understandably, wants no part of Amanda anymore, regardless of how nice those parts may be, and this turns out to be his undoing. Soon, he befriends a new guy in town, a goofy faux-cowboy named Lester (that would be Vaughn) who wears a white Stetson and fringed square dance-style satin shirts.

Dead bodies galore

Amanda, a jealous one, winds up shooting a local waitress while the woman is in the sack with Clay. Clay can't tell the cops, though, because Amanda will say that he killed her husband. Then Lester, who likes the ladies, quickly ends up in Amanda's pants. Unfortunately, he's also a psychopath, so he stabs her to death in a distastefully protracted bedroom scene, knowing full well that all of this will eventually lead to Clay.

Now there're three dead bodies, and more on the way, with Clay getting drawn deeper and deeper into a bunch of nastiness that actually has little to do with him and a whole lot to do with Lester. You know what that means -- time to call in the big-city FBI agents so that they can wryly belittle the painfully stupid locals.

Enter Garofalo, and, finally, something entertaining starts happening, though it's not entertaining enough to save the whole film. Garofalo's general persona as an actress and stand-up comic is that of someone who's endlessly cursed by her aggressively well-read intellect, so she doesn't seem to be grandstanding as much as the other actors while dealing with the small-town cops.

The detective work (including that old genre stand-by, the videotape of the suspect having sex with the eventual victim) is less than interesting, but at least you get a good, solid dose of Janeane's trademark cynicism. I'm still a big fan.

Tiresome and hammy

Be that as it may, Phoenix isn't quite as lucky, and Vaughn's performance is an unfortunate mess. Clay is not the brightest character in the world, and this, coupled with Phoenix's penchant for confused mouth-breathing, quickly makes him tiresome. But you can forgive that because he's supposed to be one of those femme fatale chess pieces, barely grasping what's happening around him.

Vaughn, on the other hand, seems to think that he's appearing in an extended "Saturday Night Live" skit about cattle rustlers. His Southern accent comes and goes as if it's doing part-time work somewhere else, and he's not even remotely intimidating, which is a major drawback when you're playing a psycho. This is very, very hammy work. I still think Vaughn has the goods, but, man, he sure doesn't display it in this movie.

Better luck next time, guys. And, Janeane, try working with less smarty-pantsed material if you can. You know I'm pulling for you.

"Clay Pigeons" is loaded with bad language, but there are a couple of sex-and-bedroom murders that are really pretty ugly. There's female nudity and a couple lingering shots on a decomposed corpse. Don't worry, though -- it's played for laughs. Rated R. 104 minutes.

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