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THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH

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Back in the 1950s and 1960s, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was a staple of the ABC schedule. It was one of the most peculiarly titled shows of all time, because despite the suggestion of excitement that the word “adventure” implies, the stories of the Nelson family were invariably formulaic, sluggish, and monotonous, and they were directed (by Ozzie, no less) in such a lackadaisical, slack fashion that the end result was a surefire cure for insomnia. Eddie Murphy’s “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” follows the same formula. The moniker promises one thing, but the dull, dreary picture delivers something entirely different.

“Nash”–which the distributor resolutely refused to pre-screen for the press–is one of those elaborate comic misfires that come along once in a while, a sci-fi action farce that expends millions making its futuristic setting look like the inside of a sewer and apparently had no budget left over for a decent script. It’s about an ex-smuggler (Murphy) turned nightclub owner on a moon colony whose establishment is demolished by gangsters when he refuses to sell it to them. With the help of some old friends, a curvaceous singer whom he’s just hired as a waitress to help her out (Rosario Dawson) and his robot bodyguard (Randy Quaid), Pluto repeatedly eludes the gunmen pursuing him and eventually tracks down the reclusive “big boss” who runs the seedy operation. Along the way, of course, romance blooms between him and the singer.

One would imagine that a script written by a fellow whose only past ventures were the unmitigated bombs “Hocus Pocus” and “Mystery Men” would exude sufficient odor to warn off potential producers, but no such luck here. For some reason the piece, a mixture of clumsy action set-pieces, dumb slapstick and near-laughless exposition, attracted not only a bevy of backers but an impressive supporting cast, all of whom are abysmally underused. Only Jay Mohr, who gets to do a bit as a Frank Sinatra imitator, and John Cleese, who has a couple of scenes as a “Knight Rider”-like automatic car chauffeur, squeeze even the flimsiest of chuckles from the material. One has to feel especially sorry for Quaid, whose one-note delivery is suitably automated but remarkably unfunny, and Joe Pantoliano, playing an inept thug; his orange hairpiece is surely the scariest thing in the movie.

As for Murphy, presumably he was attracted to the project by the fact that he’s center-stage constantly, and doesn’t have to resort to heavy makeup as in “The Nutty Professor” movies, share screen time with animated critters as in the “Dr. Dolittle” ones, or even interact with another star (as with Robert DeNiro is the recent “Showtime”). He also gets to play one big scene with himself, split-screen style. But all of this simply proves that Eddie needs some assistance nowadays; his smirks and poses seem distinctly old-hat, with nowhere near the charm they once had. Simply put, he can no longer carry a feature on his own.

Of course, one can’t blame the star entirely for a disaster like “Pluto Nash.” Neil Cuthbert’s ramshackle script and the leaden direction of Ron Underwood are major contributing factors. So is the grubby production design by Bill Brzeski (who perhaps was devoting most of his attention to the lovely “Stuart Little II,” which he also worked on), Oliver Wood’s gloomy photography, the ragged editing by Paul Hirsch and Alan Heim, and the insistent but uninspired score by John Powell (the first strains of which mimic the opening music behind the credits for Fox’s “Futurama”–an intended homage, or just an anonymous borrowing?) During one chase sequence, when Nash loudly asks how the villains found him, Cleese’s snooty driver replies with a sneer: “Obviously you did something stupid.” That’s an observation that might be applied to everybody associated in the smallest capacity with “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” At least the title is appropriate in one respect: like Disney’s Pluto, this one is a dog. Cave canem.

THE MASTER OF DISGUISE

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In terms of boxoffice success in this summer season, Mike Myers has nothing to fear from his old “Saturday Night Live” colleague Dana Carvey. One hates to be unkind about Carvey’s first starring vehicle in years; after all, he’s suffered from much-publicized medical problems in the interval, and–to tell the truth–still looks too scrawny to be entirely well. But despite the title, there’s certainly no evidence of comic mastery to be found in what’s the equivalent of a bad SNL sketch disguised as a feature film. “The Master of Disguise” is a slapdash series of skits about a clumsy, childish waiter who utilizes his magical genetic skill at transforming his appearance to rescue his parents from a greedy thief. It’s all about makeup and completely lacking in wit, style or even simple dumb fun. Simply put, it’s a bore, and an irritating one at that, so bad as to make even a fizzle like “Goldmember” look almost good.

The obvious inspiration behind the script are the old Pink Panther pictures, in which Peter Sellers played the inept but somehow endearing Inspector Clouseau, who also often dressed up in singularly unconvincing getups. In creating Pistachio Disguisey, Carvey was clearly aiming at a similar mixture of doltishness and slapstick charm, but he’s failed dismally to achieve it; with his awful Italian accent and rubbery movements, he doesn’t resemble Sellers’ classic characterization so much as Roberto Benigni’s miserable attempt to replace it in 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther.” Even the elaborate disguises he dons fail to impress, simply because the dialogue and bits of business assigned to each persona are so colorless and dull. A couple of them–an impersonation of Robert Shaw’s Quint from “Jaws,” another of Al Pacino’s “Scarface”–are just flat movie jokes that, while mercifully brief, still overstay their welcome. Others–a “Church Lady”-like dowager, a James Bondish spy, a German tax man, President Bush II–are so short that they barely register. And one–in which Carvey dresses up as an entity called “Mr. Turtle”–is surrealistically horrid. But as co-writer the star has insured that his humiliation will be spread around to the other actors, too. Jennifer Esposito escapes relatively unscathed as the girl Pistachio falls for, but Harold Gould is given an amazingly large assortment of embarrassing shtick as his grandpa, and James Brolin is made to look twice his actual age as the dumbbell’s father. Nonetheless their degradation pales beside that heaped upon Brent Spiner as bad guy Devlin Bowman; he’s compelled not only to scowl incessantly wearing a bristly moustache but to endure an endlessly reiterated fart joke that only an imbecile could find amusing at each recurrence. The movie boasts a number of cameos, but once again Myers has a clear edge; “Austin Powers” features a host of A-list stars in bit parts, while the personalities who show up periodically here are either over-the-hill types or people so obscure that onlookers have to announce their identities for the audience’s benefit. (The effect is rather like sitting through a cut-rate auction.) Halting direction by neophyte Perry Andelin Blake (who served as production designer for a string of Adam Sandler movies), a decidedly garish physical production and overly bright cinematography by Peter Lyons Collister complete the sorry picture. (I make no comment on Marc Ellis’ score, since it made no impression whatever.)

“The Master of Disguise” comes to us from Happy Madison Productions, which is Sandler’s company, and it’s nice to know that he’s so supportive of his old TV buddies. A pity that his benevolence has resulted in a Dana Carvey movie even worse than his own awful “Mr. Deeds.” The only comforting thing about this feeble farce is that there isn’t a chance it will spawn a sequel.