Nothing to Lose
directed by Steve Oedekerk
(Touchstone, 1997)

Over the past decade, Tim Robbins has thrilled audiences with a string of intelligent, perceptive performances: Slick Hollywood up-and-comer Griffin Mill in The Player, slimy politician Bob ("The Times They Are A-changin' Back") Roberts, stalwart nonmurderer Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, among others.

So why then make Nothing to Lose, a formulaic buddy film that devotes 97 minutes to undermining the one good idea it offers? That idea is simply this: Down-and-out electrician Terrence Paul (Martin Lawrence) decides to hijack a car driven by slick ad exec Nick Beam (Robbins) who's already on the verge of blowing out his own brains because he just saw his wife (Kelly Preston) in bed with his boss (Philip Barrow).

"Boy, did you pick the wrong guy on the wrong day," Beam tells him.

Not bad for starters, but can writer-director Steve Oedekerk take it anywhere? Yes, but not far enough.

He begins by having Beam turn the tables on Paul, driving nonstop at death-defying speeds through the streets of L.A. and all the way to the Arizona desert before he stops for gas and cup of coffee. And he continues with Beam and Paul agreeing to join forces to get even with Beam's boss by emptying the boss's safe.

From there, however, the road is all downhill, with only an occasional speed bump to liven things up.

The problems begin when Oedekerk introduces two genuine bad guys (John C. Meginley and Giancarlo Esposito) who bear a striking resemblance to Beam and Paul, except that they're even less funny. It's the kind of coincidence that was old even when Shakespeare used it -- several times.

Things only worsen when Beam and Paul return to L.A., where Oedekerk devotes an inordinate amount of time to changing our opinion of Paul by showing him as the loving family man who's tried to break out of the ghetto by getting himself an education only to be held back because he isn't "the corporate color."

On top of that, Oedekerk telegraphs what could be one of the best gags of the film -- the flashlights Beam and Paul steal for their heist contain AM//FM radios (you know one of them is going to start playing at the worst possible time) -- and then saves the worst for last: Guess what? It was all one big misunderstanding.

To be fair, Nothing to Lose contains some very funny lines, most of which belong to Lawrence. "I never noticed this before," he tells Robbins as they put on ski masks for the heist, "but you have really beautiful eyes." And don't miss the opening bit, a twisted little piece of psychodrama performed in bed by the Beams.

But all too often, Nothing to Lose comes across more as a string of road gags than a well-plotted comedy of errors. Routines that do work are stretched until they break, and "character" scenes do little more than replace negative stereotypes with positive ones.

Perhaps with Robbins and Lawrence and a very funny premise, Oedekerk thought he had nothing to lose. He was wrong.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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