There's deadpan, and then there's "Coldblooded," a comedy from former "Simpsons" writer M. Wallace Wolodarsky starring Jason Priestley as an unwilling mob hit man who grows with discomfiting ease into the job.
Priestley plays Cosmo, a nerdy, emotion-free schlep who lives in the basement of a retirement community home and is perfectly happy running numbers until his boss (Robert Loggia) "promotes" him to gun for hire ("It's fun!" he enthuses to his complacent charge). Cosmo is paired with Steve (Peter Riegert), an unusually chipper assassin who shows him the ropes (actually, they use guns) and discovers that thanks to Cosmo's apparent inability to cope with feelings of any sort, he has quite the prodigy on his hands.
Cosmo does take up yoga to deal with the guilt that tends to come along when you kill people, and falls for his yoga instructor, Jasmine (Kimberly Williams), who is struggling through an abusive relationship. Their dates are dull at best but still better than what Jasmine is used to; of course, Cosmo's new career path causes some inevitable complications.
Coming as it does from a former "Simpsons" writer, "Coldblooded" has a healthy number of hilarious moments. "Guns don't kill people--we kill people," Steve tells Cosmo, adding a desultory chuckle; later, he confesses, "I have nightmares about [my victims] begging and screaming, but that's part of the job."
Scenes in which the attacks take place are filled with comically amiable small talk until the grisly deed must be performed--Cosmo even seeks romantic advice from a couple of his victims. Pointedly, or simply conveniently (it's hard to tell which), Cosmo and Steve get away with murder even in broad daylight without the barest hint of a witness disturbing their trade.
This off-the-cuff surrealism that permeates "Coldblooded" makes it less a full-bodied, fulfilling story and more of a comic stunt, carried by Priestley's loopily hangdog, body-language-heavy performance, which isn't as studied but is as emotionally blank as Dustin Hoffman's in "Rain Man." A loser whose life is utterly unexamined, Cosmo easily surmounts his moral ambivalence to his new, lucrative career simply by discovering he's a darn good shot (watching a murder on a turgid TV movie, he says with a shrug, "That is so fake").
Riegert earns a number of laughs as the genial mentor, and Janeane Garofalo and Michael J. Fox turn up in quirky cameos. Wolodarsky seems somewhat inspired by the comic laconism and minimalism of Hal Hartley ("Trust," "Amateur"), but jettisons the angst. "Coldblooded" is clunky narratively and merely competent on a technical level, and in general tends toward slightness. But for audiences hip to the comic possibilities in long, uncomfortable silences, it's a clever, low-key lark.
* MPAA-rating: R, for some graphic violence, sexual dialogue and language. Times guidelines: The violence is treated irreverently, which may take the edge off it for some filmgoers but may further upset others.
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Jason Priestley: Cosmo
Kimberly Williams: Jasmine
Peter Riegert: Steve
Polygram Film International and Motion Picture Corporation of American presents a Snowback production, released by IRS Releasing Corporation. Director, screenwriter M. Wallace Wolodarsky. Producers Brad Krevoy, Steve Stabler, Brad Jenkel. Executive producer Larry Estes. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editor Craig Bassett. Costumes Matthew Jacobson. Music Steve Bartek. Production design Rae Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* In limited release throughout Southern California.