Silly 'Amos & Andrew' doesn't get started until it's almost done

March 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Amos & Andrew" is yet another movie set in the magical kingdom of Stupidland, where endless complications unfold endlessly (and tiresomely) because grown men act as if they have the IQs of potatoes. Was it written by Dan Quayle?

Actually, it was written by its director, E. Max Frye, as a kind of comic take on "The Defiant Ones," in which a black man and a white man are yoked together, set upon by the law and discover similarities and eventually a kind of brotherhood, while stupidity and madness whirl about them.

Sometimes it hits and sometimes it misses but its most painful flaw is the long, long time it takes to get itself set up. It's all huffing and puffing and not much blowing the house down. As Frye imagines it, prosperous (and self-important) African-American playwright Andrew Sterling (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives late one night at his new resort home on a plush New England island. Alone in his house, his first move is to set up his stereo. Wouldn't that be your first move after a long, trying journey? His neighbors -- who don't know the house has been bought by a black man -- see him carting hi-fi equipment left and right and call the cops.

The chief of police is a smarmy creep with political ambitions (Dabney Coleman, returning to the kind of role that made him a star) who quickly leads the village SWAT team into action, ventilates the house and nearly kills the writer. When he realizes what a bad career move he's made, he has to figure out how to get himself out of it.

Thus he puts a proposition before his one prisoner, a low-Q car thief and wastrel named Amos Odell (Nicolas Cage): Go to the house, pretend to be a burglar, allow us to rescue Sterling from you and we will let you escape later. By this time, the movie is three-quarters over and it hasn't even started yet!

So the other complications have to be sort of shoehorned in. Soon enough, the national media show up at the crime scene and Amos and Andrew find themselves locked in the house with a crew of trigger-happy moron cops out front and five network news cameras griding away.

Frye's satirical range is wide enough to accommodatself-aggrandizing black civil rights leaders (a nasty homage to the Rev. Al Sharpton, offered by Giancarlo Esposito), duplicitous liberals (neighbors Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin), gun-crazy law-and-order types, black bitterness, white callowness and the tendency of everything to go wrong at once.

Now and then he stumbles into a rich vein of comedy. Mfavorite bit involved the bland Bob Balaban as a narcissistic free-lance hostage counselor who used his phone time to the bad boy to soliloquize on the wonderfulness of being himself, and his hopes, dreams and oh-so-poignant memories ("God, I wanted that pony!"), unaware that the odd couple has fled the house and it's poor trussed-up Dabney Coleman who has to listen to his babbling inanities.

But too much time is taken with the wheezing labor of farce convention: getting people into and out of rooms and houses, keeping track of who believes what about the situation, following minor characters to nurse one or two gags out of them. The movie just works too hard; it has to be effortless to be funny.

The best thing about the picture, after Coleman's oozing rectitude, is the nicely done bonding between Jackson and Cage. Each begins with contempt for the other, but like men in war pictures and baseball pictures or men in war and baseball, they soon realize they have more in common than not. Cage, ingratiating when he doesn't try too hard, is quite good; Jackson is much funnier here than in "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon" where he was asked pretty much to stand around and let that fabled cut-up Emilio Estevez go wild. The two of them are the whole show.

"Amos & Andrew"

Starring Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson.

Directed by E. Max Frye.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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