“Concentrate on the gimmick, and the audience leaves unfulfilled,” says Critical Jim, the film-buff bounty hunter played by Tim Allen in Who Is Cletis Tout? (Paramount Classics, opens July 26). Jim breaks off this bit of wisdom for his chair-trussed captive, Finch (Christian Slater), a victim of mistaken identity whom he’s holding for just 90 minutes in wait for murderous thugs. Between Allen’s belabored movie quoting, he offers Finch escape in exchange for a ripping yarn. “Pitch me,” demands Allen, thus casting Slater as the Scheherazade of the film’s much-concentrated-on gimmick. As Slater drones along, writer-director Chris Ver Wiel’s cobbled-up plot leads us to his own pitch-peg—see, it’s a story about a guy who breaks into a prison. No, not out of, yeah, into.
Finch’s tale unfolds: fugitive forger hot to liberate diamonds buried in a prison yard by his dead jewel thief-magician pal back when the place was still a flowery field. But bad dudes complicate matters when the fake ID supplied to Finch by a crooked coroner makes him Cletis Tout, an unlucky snoop killed for filming a local gangster strangling a hooker. When Finch finds the tape after breaking into Tout’s place, he’s marked. Oh, and he’s also in love with the magician’s daughter, a pot-throwing artist and carrier-pigeon trainer who also seeks the buried treasure.
This charmless nonsense ensues amid clanging film references that make Jay and Silent Bob’s Excellent Adventure seem understated. With Allen reading Dirty Dozen lines off cards and hapless everygangsters flattening out the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot, catching intended homages actually makes the experience worse. Glance down at your Raisinets and you’ll miss Richard Dreyfuss as the short-lived magician and bald RuPaul, making some shoe change as an extraneous aren’t-trannies-cwazy diversion. The sodium-water chemistry between Slater and Portia De Rossi is a failed screwball spar that hinges on a slur about “mongoloids.” And whoever thought Slater’s juiceless wheeze would make great voice-over is either his mom or smoking from the Dances With Wolves pipe. The upshot of all this seems to be that forgery is really easy with a Mac, old movies had top-notch writing, and De Rossi looks wowza in a turtleneck.