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Movie Review : 'Burglar' A Theft Of Actress's Talent

March 20, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Do you have any faith in a big-budget comedy thriller that begins with the star's title credit pasted over a shot of her padded, waggling rump? "Burglar" (citywide) starts badly and goes downhill: This is thick-headed, joyless, malfunctioning big-studio product at its ripest.

It's a triple threat: a comedy that doesn't make you laugh, a mystery that doesn't make sense and a thriller without thrills. (It also offers unromantic romance, unsexy sex, location shots you can't see too well and dialogue you'd rather not hear.) Perhaps somebody, somewhere will find something to enjoy while watching "Burglar"--but they'll probably have to bring it into the theater with them.

In "Jumping Jack Flash," Whoopi Goldberg gave a sparkling, lively performance in a predictable story, and she was so good--a juicy, sassy, streetwise gamin--that she seemed to have found her niche as an offbeat heroine. Here, the movie is empty, and so is her character, even though it was obviously written, or rewritten, for her.

It's another high concept nobody bothered to fill in: Whoopi as foul-mouthed, cool, cat-burglar-bookshop clerk Bernice Rhodenbarr, the hippest of the heisters. Her catch phrase, repeated over and over--and over --is "I gotta stop doin' this stuff." ("Stuff" is not part of the phrase; the word she really uses is shorter and more malodorous.)

The plot clicks along like a dirty joke without a punch line. We watch Bernice looting a San Francisco posh home, outfoxing the police and being blackmailed by a cop gone bad--who suddenly shifts gears and bewilderingly goes good. Pretty soon, she's stumbled into a botched burglary and is suspected of a murder she didn't commit. If you guess the rest of the movie will consist of car chases, bar scenes, dumb cops, hoity-toity deflatable snobs, scatological wisecracks and lots of famous locations (Nob Hill, Haight-Ashbury, North Beach) you're a step or five ahead of the writers. There's no cliff-hanger on the Golden Gate Bridge, but maybe it was closed that day.

It isn't just the predictability of this movie that puts you in a torpor: It's the constant clumping march of misfiring lines and gags. And casting Goldberg in this kind of super- macho role--swearing like a trouper, pulling guns on her customers and duking it out with the bad guys--seems almost cowardly. She isn't a conventional heroine, so the film makers won't let her be one at all. They practically de-sex her, turn her into a neutered, wise-cracking, bad-mouth tomboy--with Bobcat (now Bob) Goldthwait in a curious part, a deranged poodle groomer, that almost suggests Bernice's girlfriend.

Any movie where Bob Goldthwait gets most of the laughs, as he does here, is bound to be in trouble. Goldthwait's strangled-voice shtick is so unvaryingly bizarre you can't take a lot of it: He seems to be playing a speech disorder victim who's been drinking Thunderbird and banging his head against a wall for several hours. When he gets this act really cooking, you're not sure whether to laugh or give him a quarter.

But both Goldberg and Goldthwait acquit themselves more admirably than do writer-director Hugh Wilson ("Police Academy") and writer-co-producers Joseph Loeb III and Matthew Weisman ("Teen Wolf," "Commando"), all of whose contributions might kindly be described as dubious. That great cinematographer William Fraker has photographed their work, and he seems to be trying to keep you constantly in the dark or the fog. Maybe he's ashamed to have us see any of this; if so, he's demonstrating good taste.

At the end, your faith in Goldberg's talent remains undiminished: Glimmers of her best stuff creep through this slick mess like sunbeams in a trash heap. She should, however, heed the ineffable wisdom of Bernice Rhodenbarr's catch phrase: Whoopi, you gotta stop doin' this, uh, stuff.

'BURGLAR'

A Warner Bros. release of a Nelvana Entertainment production. Producers Kevin McCormack, Michael Hirsh. Director Hugh Wilson. Script Joseph Loeb III, Matthew Weisman, Wilson. Cameras William Fraker. Music Sylvester Levay. Executive producer Tom Jacobson. Production design Todd Hallowell. Editors Fredric & William Steinkamp. With Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Goldthwait, G. W. Bailey, Lesley Ann Warren, James Handy, Anne DeSalvo, John Goodman.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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