"Clay Pigeons" is a slick piece of work, visually pleasing and blessed with some good performances, but finally the style and vigor thrown at it don't make up for its beleaguered story. The film has flashes of humor but no brilliance or narrative complexity; it's "Red Rock West" for lazy people.
Joaquin Phoenix, the sleepy-eyed, thick-tongued actor from "To Die For," plays Clay, a mechanic living in Mercer, Mont., deep in the land of sky-blue waters. Lest filmgoers think "Clay Pigeons" is another eponymous pun on the order of "Good Will Hunting," Clay is no pigeon -- which is why he gets into trouble over and over again.
First Clay witnesses the suicide of his best friend, who is distraught over the fact that Clay has been having an affair with his wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates). Then he must explain why bodies keep turning up where he is -- lakes, waterbeds, you name it -- to the sheriff (Scott Wilson in a wonderfully understated performance).
While Amanda makes trouble for Clay (not to mention an ICU ward's worth of second-hand smoke), he befriends a handsome truck driver named Lester (Vince Vaughn). With femme fatale and disturbing stranger firmly in place, "Clay Pigeons" proceeds to send Clay on his merry way to ruin.
Director David Dobkin is an acolyte of commercial-turned-movie
directors Ridley and Tony Scott (Ridley's movie "Alien" even has a cameo), and "Clay Pigeons" evinces the same dexterity with the medium's fetishes. Guns, trucks, the grieving widow's red underwear are all lovingly filmed with bright, legible clarity, and Dobkin shows taste in his selection of source music (the Old 97's, Whiskeytown, Lyle Lovett and the Mavericks are all featured on the soundtrack).
Although "Clay Pigeons" never really takes flight, it's nice to see Vaughn stretch out for the first time since "Swingers" (his snap-crackle delivery has been replaced by a Dean Martin drawl and a callow laugh). And things decidedly perk up once Janeane Garofalo shows up as a mordant FBI agent. Between this and "Permanent Midnight," Garofalo is becoming a very good reason to see the movies she's in.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo
Directed by David Dobkin
Released by Gramercy Pictures
L Rated R (strong scenes of sexuality, language and violence)
Running time 99 minutes
Sun score **
Pub Date: 10/02/98