'Eight Heads' left brains at home

April 18, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

There's nothing wrong with "Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag" that three re-writes and a new director wouldn't have solved.

A so-called black farce, it follows as Mafia meathead Joe Pesci tries to track down the duffel bag of the title, which has gotten mixed up on an airline flight to San Diego. By the physics of lazy screenwriting, it's come into the astonished possession of an amiable but otherwise unremarkable medical student named Charlie (Andy Comeau, and I don't know who he is either), who is spending his vacation with his girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) and her snooty parents (George Hamilton and Dyan Cannon) at a Mexican resort.

Let me tell you, when George Hamilton is the best thing in the movie, you got trouble right there in River City.

He's funny not because of himself but in spite of himself. Almost without a shred of noticeable talent, he throws himself into his role with such brazen gusto the whole thing takes on a sort of heroic zeal: Imagine a man sitting at a piano in tails, throwing himself at the keyboard amid a mist of sweat and passion, and pounding away, completely unfazed by the fact that he doesn't know how to play. And stop thinking of David Helfgott!

But the movie's writer-director Tom Schulman (he won an Oscar for writing "Dead Poets Society" in 1989) encourages its performers to zing out into unfamiliar areas. Only Dyan Cannon really prospers, because, like Hamilton, she's more than willing to sacrifice her dignity. Swanson is completely overmatched by the frantic badness of the material. She walks about with a slightly twitted look, as if she can't quite remember why she agreed to do this one. As for the underwhelming Comeau (who is this guy?), this is who he is: next year's Andrew McCarthy.

Even the great Pesci seems off his chops here. You'd think this guy would be perfect in this role in the way that it draws on the serious dementia of his great spins in "GoodFellas" and "Casino," but somehow the lack of a worthwhile acting ensemble seems to throw him. He never comes close to that demonic intensity that made him a star -- "Are you laughing at me? Am I funny? Do I amuse you?" Well, Joe, not really, sorry to say.

You may have heard David Spade is in the picture. He is, sort of, but he's quite a distance from any starring role. Rather, he's one of Comeau's roommates who's captured and tortured by the frantic Pesci. The two of them have some nice comic energy, but the movie doesn't do enough with it. And for the longest time, it feels too separated -- the Mexican head-joke movie and a Newark fraternity house torture movie!

The head jokes grow stale, and somehow they never really shocked to begin with. I mean, after all, how funny are eight heads in a duffel bag? Once you get the idea, the snicker content drops. How many times is a dog going to run away with a head, is someone going to do a spit-take when they see one? This is no way to get ahead!

'Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag'

Starring Joe Pesci and David Spade

Directed by Tom Schulman

Released by Orion

Rated R (tasteless material)

Sun score **

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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