You won't remember a thing about ``Clean Slate''

May 06, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Is there any older, creakier, deader movie bit than . . . amnesia? Really, not even Carbon-14 dating methods could unearth the first time this ancient stroke was employed by a desperate storyteller. Surely it was sometime in the Jurassic.

Now here's "Clean Slate," which builds a whole movie around amnesia. Talk about despair! It's a festival of strained, grasping, sweaty almost-gags and near-jokes.

Dana Carvey, as wan a screen presence as he is dynamic a tube presence, plays a Los Angeles private detective named Maurice Pogue who has received a brain injury in the middle of a case. The trick is that every time he goes to sleep he wakes up with no idea who he is. This means that . . . every . . . ** . . . morning, using a tape recorder, he has to reacquaint himself and the rapidly diminishing audience with the plot. The filmmakers seem not to understand that . . . we don't have amnesia. We remember!

The movie has one fundamental joke, amusing the first 30 times it's employed, but then it rapidly loses steam. It's that Pogue, his brain empty, keeps being hustled before audiences to discover himself the fulcrum of some ceremony, where he's called on to make some kind of speech.

The gag seems a projection of the common actor's nightmare of finding oneself on stage in costume in front of an audience with no idea what production it is and no idea what the next line -- theirs -- is. Carvey's response, usually amusing, is to launch into the realm of blathering banalities and surf through the dazed confusion until his sheer brio overwhelms the doubters. Pretty amusing.

Almost nothing else is. The plot involves a missing ancient coin that is being sought by two competing units of thieves, a femme fatale of dubious loyalty who claims to have been Carvey's lover, and finally, a number of lame jokes about a dog with a depth perception problem who keeps bumping into things.

Most absurdly, the movie never lets its actors do what they do best. Carvey, for example, is a drop-dead impersonator, as George Bush discovered to his discomfort. Now, given the blank slate premise, why not let him be a new person each day, and squeeze humor out of that? Or: Why not let him discover his authentic and presumably dynamic personality at a key moment? But no: He's the same milky dweeb each day, feckless and incompetent, relying too much on the kindness of strangers.

Then there's his pal, an assistant D.A., played by Kevin Pollak. Pollak, with his wise-cracking mouth and feral urban features, has by this time achieved a modest film niche as an incisive, smart-talking, fast-on-the-uptake kind of guy. So why cast him as . . . another dweeb, who can't quite figure things out. He seems like the one with the amnesia.

By far the best cast member -- other than the dog -- is Valerie Golino, who has a much deeper and more subversive sense of the nutty than the bland boys around her. Cast as the Femme Fatale, she's the one thing worth watching; she keeps turning in odd line readings, coming up with surprising, amusing bits.

But the level of invention is way down. At one point Carvey and Golino are locked in a steam bath to keep Carvey from testifying against villain Michael Gambon. One of the henchmen comes in to check them, then forgets to close the door. Oh, the old he-forgot-to-close-the-door routine! Very clever, professor. Whatta twist!

And the movie also seems set up to take satirical advantage of its own genre, the private eye melodrama. In fact, bad guy Gambon has been coached by director Mick Jackson to more than a passing resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet in "Maltese Falcon," and at one point the script contrives to unspool a few seconds of that film on a TV Carvey is watching. Of course it's the best few seconds of "Clean Slate" -- Bogart slaps the heck out of Elisha Cook Jr., great scene -- but the larger possibility goes ignored.

"Clean Slate" never becomes a parody, a satire . . . or even a comedy. When you wake up the next morning, you will have forgotten entirely about it. I know I can't wait.

'Clean Slate'

Starring Dana Carvey and Valeria Golino

Directed by Mick Jackson

Released by MGM

PG-13

... **

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