Humorless and dumb, 'Robbersons' crying for what used to be

April 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Cops and Robbersons" appears to have escaped from an Institution for the Criminally Inane.

Nothing in it is worked out or dramatized, none of the comedy is particularly comic, and the whole thing seems phoned in from Encino.

A dangerous counterfeiter, played by Robert Davi (he used to be a real actor), moves into a bland suburban neighborhood next door to a bland suburban family, the Robbersons, who are played by Chevy Chase and Diane Wiest (Wiest also used to be a real actor).

Two detectives -- old Jack Palance and young David Barry Gray -- set up a stakeout at the Robbersons', but are gradually absorbed into family life. They end up more like family counselors than police officers and somehow, magically, "heal" the family. Palance was once an actor -- anybody remember Robert Aldrich's great "Attack," where he played Lt. Joe Costa? As for Gray, he's not yet an actor and there's no way of telling whether he'll ever be.

Chase, of course, was never a real actor. He's a professional fall-down-go-boom guy, and the movie is weakly contrived to offer him a few opportunities for physical comedy, all of which seem grotesquely gratuitous. Presented as a cop wannabe, he throws himself pitifully at the cops, who treat him as what he is, a pathetic embarrassment. We get to see him try to swing into a window SWAT-team style three times and, twice, he hits the wall. Think how many times in movie history this lame gag has appeared. It must be thousands! And it was only funny once.

There's a pathetic stab at poignancy the movie never quite brings off. That's Chase's melancholy over the reality that his family is mildly dysfunctional, and that his children secretly can't stand him and flee his presence for more interesting stimuli. When gruff Palance arrives, exuding machismo from every pore, the kids are instantly drawn to his essence of authority, and poor Chase is usurped.

But Michael Ritchie, who used to be a real director, can find no way to animate this sadness. Instead, he lets Chase go more and more hangdog until he appears to have turned into a human special effect: he's a human Bassett-hound, without makeup!

Equally absurd and equally annoying is Palance. Flukily restored to movie-star status after the success of "City Slickers," it's as if he read too many of his own favorable notices. This isn't a performance, it's a man posing for the fleet of sculptors who will carve his 14-story visage into the side of Mount Rushmore.

doesn't act. He hardly talks; he just makes weird sucking sounds through his dentures and twitches and quivers his facial muscles.

The plot is a naught: the cops simply hang around being social workers until a bad guy shows up to visit Davi. Then the movie clicks into a slapstick-rich finale that isn't A) remotely funny, and B) repeats the evil canard that guns are essentially toys and not to be feared.

I never thought I'd say it, but: Chevy, get yourself another talk show, bud!

MOVIE REVIEW

"Cops and Robbersons"

Starring Chevy Chase and Jack Palance

Directed by Michael Ritchie

Released by TriStar

Rated PG-13

... **

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