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Who Is Cletis Tout

This split-narrative story of theft and mayhem is the best movie I have rented in a long, long time and is well worth the rent.  There is not an actor in it who does a bad job with Christian Slater being as good as always and Tim Allen being the great surprise as the hit man Critical Jim that I often find him to be.  If you have not seen this yet and you are looking for something to rent, this is it.


Starring:  Christian Slater, Time Allen, Portia de Rossi and Richard Dryfus


Written and directed by Chris Ver Weil (a stand-up comic) in his directorial debut.


Produced by about a bazillion people.  Okay, there are 5 producers, 5 co-producers an Executive producer and 3 associate producers listed.  Even trying to keep Dustin Hoffman’s role in Wag the Dog in mind, it is difficult to know exactly what a producer does, let alone understanding the exact role that one of three “associate producers” might have.  One co-producer, Dennis Murphy, also co-produced Powder (1995). Mary Jo Slater (co-producer) casted The Last Castle (2001) and Supernova (2000), and no one else involved in the production of this movie has done anything that jumps out at you, except this movie and it is really good.


In this movie, Christian Slater plays a reasonably small time con artist who helps Richard Dryfus escape from prison.  Dryfus, a robber, had years ago hidden away (buried) the proceeds of a diamond theft.  After escaping, Dryfus is unfortunately killed and Slater must find the diamonds with the help of Dryfus’ daughter, Portia de Rossi.  The hitch, and it is a fun hitch, is that to hide his identity, Slater “borrows” the persona of a dead man by the name of Cletis Tout.  Upon hearing that Tout is alive (the guy is dead but Slater is using his name), the mob sends Critical Jim (Allen) to properly kill him.  The split-narrative begins with Allen catching Slater and then allowing him the opportunity to tell his story that, if good enough, Allen will trade for Slater’s life.


With Slater telling his story, the movie jumps back and forth between the present, the past and a “supra-fictional” past that is based partly on what may have happened and partly on prodding by Critical Jim.  This fiction within a fiction (think of the premise of The Usual Suspects) creates an odd (post-modern) movie watching experience where the viewer is left wondering what is real (real in the movie fiction) and what is fake (made up by one character to appease another).  To me, this seems like an uneasy balance to maintain for a movie.  For example, in The Usual Suspects I felt a bit ripped off at the end when I discovered that the whole story I had been told was made up by one character in the movie.  It was as if, somehow, what I had been watching was more fake than what I had been led to believe.  Having a character lie to the viewer, that is, sets up an uneasy balance in the narrative where the fiction of the movie that the audience is being led to believe in (first-order fiction) is punctured and rendered supra-fictional by the lies that the first-order fictional character is telling.


In The Usual Suspects (and I loved that movie), I found that the bloody realism of the supra-fiction held the potential of being disastrous to the first-order fiction.  Bursting the belief bubble of the audience at the supra-fictional level, that is, threatened to burst the bubble at the first-order level.  The tension caused by this threat was, in fact, what made The Usual Suspects such a great movie.


In Who is Cletis Tout this bubble bursting was not an issue as there was enough fantasy to maintain both the first and second level charade.  Moreover, the audience was brought the supra-fictional tale (the story Slater’s character tells) while already being planted firmly in the terra of the first order fiction (Slater captured by Allen). The Split narrative gave the audience a reference point for the first-order fictional reality that was not threatened by the supra-fiction that we were learning from the characters.  The tension here was in the telling of a compelling story and in deciding what parts of the story were fiction of the first order and what parts of the story were supra-fictional (does that make sense?). 


That is, where The Usual Suspects had a very realistic first-order fiction (the interrogation) and a very realistic supra-order fiction (the story as told by Kevin Spacey’s character), in Who is Cletis Tout, the supra-order fiction (as told by Slater’s character) is obviously not all “true”.  The tension is created by the juxtaposition of what is and what is not true in that supra-fictional story - what Slater’s character is making up for the benefit of Critical Jim and what is the truth in reference to the “reality” of he and Critical Jim having the conversation in the first place.


Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that I liked this movie a lot.  It had romance, it had adventure, it had twists and it had tension.  Plus it had some wonderful Disney-like (back when Disney was Disney) surprises that left you with a pleasant feeling about the world being simply fine.  Slater was basically as good as he is in every movie (which is to say he was good again) and Tim Allen was excellent as Critical Jim.  In fact, Tim Allen (who one might not immediately think of when casting a hit man) was as good in this movie as he was in Galaxy Quest (and he was very  good in Galaxy Quest).  This leads me to believe that Tim Allen is actually a good actor who ends up taking bad roles (such as The Santa Clause, The Santa Cause II, Big Trouble, Joe Somebody, Home Improvement, etc).  Richard Dryfus (who also takes bad roles) was good in this movie but has never been one of my favorite actors.  He basically plays the same character he always plays, or, the very least, plays it the same way he plays them all, relying on his grin more than any kind of acting.


Go rent this movie, sit back and enjoy it.  Let the romantic fantasy roll over you and enjoy the popcorn.

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