“Who is Cletis Tout?” is a breezy, fast-paced 85-minutes of comedy and mild action, and all of it is harmless. It stars Christian Slater as Finch, a career criminal in prison for fraud, who decides to come along after helping to arrange the escape of aging jewel thief Donnelly (Richard Dreyfuss). In the city with plans to dig up the millions in diamonds Donnelly had stolen 20 years before, the duo hooks up with Donnelly’s daughter Tess (Portia de Rossi). Things take an unexpected turn when the trio becomes unwittingly involved with the local mob, which are trying to kill Finch believing him to be a tabloid journalist name Cletis Tout.
An early assassination attempt on Finch fails, but Donnelly is killed, thus freeing Richard Dreyfuss to go do other projects. Comedian Billy Connolly (“Boondock Saints”) has a small but funny role as an M.E. who sells the identity of the recently deceased Tout to his old buddy Finch, unaware of Tout’s current unfavorable status with the mob. Also on Finch’s trail is suave contract killer Critical Jim (Tim Allen), a hitman whose entire frame of reference for life is old classic movies. As the film opens, Critical Jim has captured Finch, and to pass the time until the order to kill comes through, he asks Finch to tell him a story. Finch then proceeds to tell most of the movie in flashback.
Sometimes funny, sometimes charming, but always with its tongue firmly in its cheek, “Who is Cletis Tout?” doesn’t have much of an original flair. The only interesting twist, as Critical Jim notes, is when Finch and Tess discovers that the spot where the diamonds are buried has now become part of a minimum-security prison. Having broken out of one prison to get to the diamonds, it now seems Finch must break into another one! This involves an elaborate (and not too well thought out) plan concerning a videotape that shows the local mob boss’s son killing a hooker during rough sex.
The screenplay by Ver Wiel has touches of Tarantino, in that people often take time out to sit in one place and converse about banal subjects like the homosexual nature of the movie “Deliverance” and the 3-Act structure of a movie. Being that Tim Allen’s Critical Jim character is a hitman obsessed with movies, Ver Wiel gets to put some lumps on his own industry via Jim’s “critical” (get it?) analysis of the film industry. It’s all worth a couple of chuckles, but nothing to laugh over. All of “Tout”, in fact, is nothing to laugh over. The film elicits a few chuckles, some smiles, but it’s never successful enough in anything it does to completely win you over.
As a Direct-to-Video victim, “Who is Cletis Tout?” is actually not a bad movie at all. As previously mentioned, it’s fast-paced, and at 85-minutes of actual movie, the film has almost no extraneous scenes. The characters are all funny, including the mob’s two bumbling hitmen, who keeps screwing up. (Although in their defense they actually did kill the right Tout in the beginning.) Gender bending actor RuPaul has a cameo as Tout’s next-door neighbor, and Peter MacNeill is a police Detective investigating the hooker’s murder.
Of note is leading man Christian Slater, who hasn’t really had a lot of good roles since his turn as pirate DJ Harry Hardon in “Pump Up the Volume”, the best Teen Drama that, to this day, remains shamefully unnoticed by the general public. Australian Portia de Rossi (TV’s “Ally McBeal”) is very charming, as is Richard Dreyfuss in what amounts to a lengthy cameo. His death scene comes pretty early, so it’s not much of a spoiler to mention it. In the movie’s funniest bit, Critical Jim asks Finch if anyone has ever told him that he sounds like Jack Nicholson. (Those who has seen Slater knows he’s the spitting image of a young Jack, not to mention possessing Jack’s exact speech cadence.)
The film is told in non-linear fashion, and at one point there’s even a flashback within a flashback — a movie gimmick that movie aficionado Critical Jim mentions with enthusiasm. “Tout” could be better, and the sudden violence in the film’s final minutes is a bit unexpected, but overall it’s a good movie.
Chris Ver Wiel (director) / Chris Ver Wiel (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Slater …. Trevor Allen Finch
Tim Allen …. Critical Jim
Portia de Rossi …. Tess Donnelly
Richard Dreyfuss …. Micah Donnelly
Billy Connolly …. Dr. Savian
Peter MacNeill …. Detective Tripp
RuPaul …. Ginger Markum