New comedies don't hold 'Up'

Opening today

This year's Academy Award hopefuls are off and running, each yearning for the extra fame and fortune that an Oscar win usually provides. Moviegoers around the world are sharing in the excitement, blithely unconcerned that the annual race is basically a popularity contest more attuned to trendy glamour than enduring value.

As if the focus on last year's glitziest achievements weren't enough to keep us busy, Hollywood is trotting out a new batch of star-powered pictures to liven up the generally dull midwinter season. Next week brings Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys," already a noisily touted attraction.

Two others open today. One stars Bruce Willis in "The Whole Nine Yards," a comedy about contract killers. The other, three popular actresses - Meg Ryan, Lisa Kudrow, and Diane Keaton - in "Hanging Up," a bittersweet look at family life.

The Whole Nine Yards begins in a Montreal suburb where Oz Oseransky, a mild-mannered dentist played by "Friends" star Matthew Perry, spends his nondrilling hours quarreling with his ill-tempered wife. His life is so unhappy that he welcomes the distraction when a notorious hit man moves in next door and strikes up a friendship with him.

Things get complicated when rival criminals recruit Oz to help them rub out his neighbor. They get more complicated when Oz's cute young receptionist turns out to be an aspiring serial killer who idolizes his new friend. They get really complicated when Oz's spouse decides that one of these murderers is just the person to terminate her marriage by terminating her husband.

This sounds like dubious material for a comedy until you remember that some extremely funny pictures - "Prizzi's Honor," "The Freshman" -have cooked up laughs from similarly dark ingredients. It's not an easy feat to accomplish, though, and "The Whole Nine Yards" has very mixed success. It works reasonably well when Willis and Perry deadpan their way through the early scenes, testing each other's limits like little kids with zero social skills. Amanda Peet is excellent as the psychopathic dental assistant, and Michael Clarke Duncan's role as a Chicago hood showcases his talent much better than "The Green Mile" does.

But the story runs out of clever ideas long before it's over, and the acting isn't enough to keep it sizzling along. One also wonders if Hollywood is losing whatever morality it ever had regarding murder, since this is the second movie in two weeks (after "Gun Shy") that allows a serial killer to escape punishment. Even comedies know that crime shouldn't pay - don't they?

Hanging Up tells the tale of three sisters whose aging father (Walter Matthau) is apparently losing his ability to enjoy a meaningful life. They want to help him, but their own activities - and their complex relationships with each other -keep interfering with their good intentions. The outcome is what you'd expect, as the sisters renew their affection through coping with their dad's many trials.

Keaton directed the movie in addition to playing the oldest sister, and she doesn't have quite enough filmmaking savvy to balance the story's blend of heartbreaking and smile-coaxing moments. The film deserves credit for facing up to difficult domestic problems, but it pursues them just so far before falling back on easy and sometimes distasteful laughs.

Humor can be an excellent coping mechanism, but this process doesn't translate automatically into Hollywood-entertainment terms. "Hanging Up" is too ambitious and too frivolous for its own good.

*'The Whole Nine Yards,' rated R, contains nudity, violence, and vulgar language. 'Hanging Up,' rated PG-13, contains vulgarity and scenes of illness.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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