Safe Men

Sundance Film Festival (Midnight screening), Jan. 18, 1998–Technically raw and narratively bumpy, Safe Men, John Hamburg's first feature, is a high-concept comedy that has the all the merits and weaknesses of amateurish low-budget indie filmmaking. Intermittently funny, picture's best–and most marketable–element is its illustrious cast, including Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Michael Lerner and Harvey Fierstein. It's doubtful, however, that a major distributor will take a spotty, not-quite-ready movie that works strenuously hard, but not entirely triumphantly, to earn its distinction as wild midnight fare.

Set in Providence, Rhode Island, premise is not bad: Sam (Box of Moonlight's Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (SuBurbia's Steve Zahn) are two vastly untalented singers who keep accusing each other, “We are a two-person band and one of us doesn't know the lyrics.” Mistakenly believed to be the best safe crackers in town, they're inadvertently pulled into Providence's netherworld of crime, in this case, the Jewish mafia.

The city's underworld appears to be dominated by two men, Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Lerner), and his only rival, Good Stuff Leo (Fierstein). Pressed into service by Bernie and his henchman, Veal Chop (Paul Gimatti), at first the duo fail to realize what they're up to. Things change, when they begin to perform a series of heists, for which they are vastly unprepared. Running joke is that they always find themselves interfering with an pro team of crackers, Mitchell and Frank (Josh Pais and Mark Ruffalo. Helmer gets some healthy buffoonery out of the two teams, which are placed on opposite sides of the same wall, with Sam and Eddie getting both credit–and blame–for the other pair's work.

Romantic interest is provided by Leo's daughter, Hannah (Christina Kirk), an aspiring chef who is willing to cook for, but will not date, crooks. Symmetrically–and rather schematically–Hamburg arranges for Hannah to be involved with Ediie as well as adversary Frank, a man so desperate to woo her back, he'll use any trick available.

Meant to be tongue-in cheek fun, Safe Men is another example of a workable short, extended to the limits of feature-length comedy. Hamburg has obviously watched the Coen brothers' movies, for he not only borrows some plot elements from their work, but also tries to invest his film with the kind of regional humor, eccentric dialect and visual design that distinguished a film like Fargo.

The whole movie is like a pastiche of recycled goods from classic American comedies. The ongoing bickering and antic farce between Sam and Eddie is taken from such buddy films as The Odd Couple and The In-Laws. One of pic's original elements is the degree of explicitness with which it handles the Jewish angle of the mob, not a terribly flattering view, considering the crass conduct and vulgar costumes of the mobsters and their families.

In the yarn's comic climax, Sam and Eddie have to steal a treasured trophy from Leo's office and deliver it to Bernie, and also perform at the Bar-Mitzvah of the latter' son, Little Big Fat Bernie Gayle, Jr. (Michael Schmidt), who's practically a copy of his dad.

Safe Men displays some goofy, good-natured ideas, but the film suffers from Hamburg's lack of technical skills and severe pacing problem. In more than one occasion, statis halts the story line, which needs to move much faster. All the thesps seem to have been broadly directed and even encouraged to use their personal shticks, most notably Fierstein's husky voice and Lerner's temperamental behavior, gimmicks that were better used in other movies.

Very young audiences might ignore the film's amateurishness and Hamburg's lack of precision in both scripting and staging, a quality that's indispensable for movies that rely heavily on bumbling characters and absurdist humor.