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Movie Reviews : Awkward 'Feds' Fails but Not De Mornay and Gross

October 31, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Movie writers sometimes think that they can take a ridiculous, but lucrative, movie genre and make it sensible by standing all the cliches on their heads. But it's a delusion. You don't end up with realism by twisting cliches inside out. You end up with twisted-up, inside-out cliches: often more strained and shallow than the originals, and without the idiot energy that made some audiences like them.

In "Feds" (citywide), two specialists in '80s buddy-buddy or occupational comedies, writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum ("Meatballs," "Stripes,") apparently started out with another "high concept" special: the daffy, goofy sex-crazed guys at the FBI academy. Then they switched it, mid-script, to a distaff variant. Two plucky students become G-women supreme, triumphing over sexism and grinning, insulting, macho cretins--including their classmates and the criminals--and to bring honor and credit to their profession and sex, if not to this movie.

Howard Hawks made this kind of switch work in "His Girl Friday," but Blum and Goldberg, who also directed, don't have that kind of style or pizazz. The movie is strained, awkward, terminally predictable and dismally shot and framed. "Feds' " idea of a funny gag is to have Rebecca De Mornay flip a shrimp on a macho boor, or to have Mary Gross, drunk, pull up a dancing partner's shirt and lick his chest. There are also comical punks, and phallic gun jokes, and yet another parody of Robert DeNiro's "Taxi Driver" soliloquy. "Feds" doesn't have the wild, sloppy gaucherie and calculated offensiveness that you might expect, but it also has almost no life or spontaneity.

The stars--De Mornay as the brawn and Gross as the brains--are good enough to make this dopey idea work. But Blum and Goldberg don't give them much better than the usual parade of elephantine slapstick, grotesque topical humor, sexual innuendo and rock 'n' roll sound bites. For spice, they also throw in dull bank robberies, listless car crashes and a phony terrorist attack. In between, De Mornay's Ellie and Gross' Janis keep bucking each other up and exchanging vapid girl talk in their dormitory room.

Their conversation is amazingly inane for an ex-Marine and doctoral degree holder. They might as well be a couple of nervous frosh at Coe College. Janis tells us that among her favorite cultural artifacts are Ford's movie of "The Grapes of Wrath," Caravaggio and the Rolling Stones--and none of those choices are in character. Later, the girls' conversation tends to be confined to worrying about exams and breathlessly deciding what to wear on a big date.

The movie seems to start out as a feminist "Police Academy," then it quickly flip-flops into a distaff G-man "Paper Chase" with Watergate Minority Counsel Fred Thompson doing a John Houseman bit as the all-wise, all-knowing, brusque head instructor. Afterward, "Feds" keeps swinging wildly between lewd high jinks and feeble quasi-naturalism right up to the bloody end: a commencement staged in what looks like a junior high multipurpose room.

"Meatballs" and "Stripes" were both comic male-bonding movies. And perhaps the Blum-Goldberg team hoped that they could lure people like Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase or Bill Murray into the movie. Luckily, they didn't. But, poor as "Feds" (MPAA rated: PG-13 for language) is, De Mornay and Gross deserve a few kind words. De Mornay, looking golden-hard and light on her feet, puts on an amusing macha act: a sort of Kewpie-doll Clint Eastwood routine. And Gross, who is given too many embarrassing things to do, still shows how sensational she could be in a properly bawdy comedy about a blossoming wallflower.

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