An allegedly comedic thriller about serial killing, David Dobkin’s Clay Pigeons strives for the kind of edgy humor that, when misjudged, can make the relevant parties look extremely foolish, not to mention morally bankrupt. Joaquin Phoenix plays a hapless Montana mechanic who, covering up the suicide of a friend (whose wife he was screwing), finds himself in a predictable mess, swiftly complicated by the mysterious arrival of a swaggering cowboy-hatted psychopath (Vince Vaughn, having fun, though I couldn’t begin to tell you why). Midway through the film, an FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo) shows up on cue. A last-minute twist seems in the cards—but is it really? It’s never clear, by the way, why any of this is supposed to be even remotely funny.
If Vaughn’s flashy, mannered performance is any indication of the actor’s grasp of character, his forthcoming Norman Bates will be a major embarrassment. Garofalo is reduced once again to being gruff and snide and deadpan, directing her barbs at the obvious-target yokels (there’s a deputy sheriff named Barney). Phoenix is a solid enough presence, but his role, as written, is restrictive and unflattering.
This is the kind of movie asinine enough to believe that the mere juxtaposition of sadistic violence and a jaunty tune on the soundtrack is, in itself, clever. That said, the main problem with Clay Pigeons isn’t even questionable taste. First-time director Dobkin (a Ridley Scott protégé who doesn’t show much of the stylistic surefootedness that that implies) and writer Mark Healy are intent on being provocative, but they lack a strategy; the film has trouble establishing a tone, and gets progressively more flaccid.