The real question this movie poses is not “Who?” but “Why?” Why did writer-director Chris Ver Wiel think it a good idea to fashion a flick that’s a bad mixture of “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty”? Why did a professional production company green-light the doomed project? Why did some name actors agree to participate in it? And why, after understandably shelving the finished film for a couple of years, has Paramount Classics decided to unleash it now, when it will clearly sink quickly beneath the weight of the summer blockbusters? (Do they require a large debit on their tax forms?) A simple review can hardly answer such questions; it can merely pose them, and proceed swiftly to warn potential viewers away from “Who Is Cletis Tout?”

The convoluted script is clearly the work of a starry-eyed movie buff. It begins with a fellow using the titular moniker (Christian Slater) being taken hostage in a hotel room by a contract killer who calls himself Critical Jim (Tim Allen); Jim tells his employers, a local crime family, that they have ninety minutes to pay him or he’ll let Tout escape. To pass the time, Jim, who gets his nickname from his fanatical love of old movies (he punctuates his talk with bits of beloved dialogue from them), invites Tout to “pitch him” by telling him his story–if he’s pleased with the yarn, he might let the captive go. Tout then relates his tale: he’s not Tout at all, but an escaped con named Finch, who broke out of jail recently with an older guy named Micah (Richard Dreyfuss). Micah, Finch explains, pulled off a diamond heist years before, and now wanted to retrieve the stones for his daughter Tess (Portia de Rossi). Once on the lam, the duo procured fake identities from fast-talking coroner Dr. Savian (Billy Connolly); but unfortunately Finch got the credentials for the recently-murdered Tout, a seedy journalist who’d videotaped a murder committed by the son of the local crime lord and been offed when he sought to profit from the knowledge. Now the mobsters assumed that Tout was still alive and came after Finch. In the ensuing violence Micah was killed, and after sparring for a while Tess and Finch overcame their mutual antipathy and agreed to retrieve the diamonds together. Unfortunately, they discovered that the stones were now buried within the confines of a minimum-security prison. Finch thus had to contrive an elaborate scheme to get inside the joint–which brought him to the attention of a crooked cop affiliated with the goombahs trying to kill Tout. Further complications ensue, not least a budding romance between Finch and Tess, but what’s supposed to juice up the scenario substantially are periodic swerves back to Jim, who comments on how “cinematic” the action is, how the story can be improved, and in what ways it resembles classic flicks from the past. Ver Wiel’s goal is obviously to fashion from this contorted, flashback-ridden assemblage a smart, sassy, amusingly referential movie that’s at once refreshingly familiar, genre-wise, and cleverly modernist in its deconstruction and reuse of old formula.

Unfortunately, the effort fails miserably. The stream of movie references comes across as pointlessly contrived and unbearably cute (Jim doesn’t distinguish between real classics and mediocre flicks in his admiration; despite his nickname, he’s completely undiscriminating, quoting dialogue at random from junk as well as memorable pictures), and they can’t in any event save a plot that’s nothing more than an ill-constructed house of cards. Maybe things would have seemed sprightlier if there were any chemistry between Slater and De Rossi, but there isn’t: he ambles through the action evincing little interest in what’s going on (an explicable point of view when he has to endure being told by Jim that he sounds like Jack Nicholson–an old, bad joke), while she’s just pouty and irritating (a point that renders the romantic element highly implausible). Dreyfuss is, unusually for him, almost anonymous, but Connolly at least adds some off-the-wall energy to his scenes. (Unfortunately, he disappears quickly.) Among the lesser players RuPaul is especially annoying as Tout’s transvestite neighbor, and the gallery of mobsters are all crude caricatures. Allen, playing a controlled, obsessive guy very unlike his customarily amiable schlub, adds a touch of professionalism to the proceedings. Unfortunately, this is his third bomb in a row; he certainly hit the skids with “Joe Somebody” and “Big Trouble” and continues the slide with this doozy. He’s the best thing about “Cletis Tout” (especially for movie buffs), but that won’t mean much for his cinematic career. He’s fortunate that “The Santa Clause 2” is just round the corner. Perhaps it will help audiences forget his recent terrible trilogy.

It only remains to say that technically the picture is adequate, with widescreen photography by Jerzy Zielinski that’s better than the material deserves. But Randy Edelman earns censure for one of those insistently burbling scores that overemphasizes every supposedly canny twist. Incredibly, “Tout” boasts no fewer than twelve producers, co-producers and executive producers. At least that spreads around the blame among them. Ver Wiel, on the other hand, will just have to shoulder the ultimate culpability all by himself.