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.