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'Who Is Cletis Tout' Offers Clever Answers

Christian Slater and Tim Allen lead a high-spirited cast in writer-director Chris Ver Wiel's fun combination of genre and intricate plot.


The answer to "Who Is Cletis Tout?" lies in a gem of a romantic crime comedy that turns out to be clever, amusing and unpredictable.

Writer-director Chris Ver Wiel, in only his second feature, has some fresh ideas and knows just what to do with an ensemble cast headed by Christian Slater, with Tim Allen, Richard Dreyfuss, RuPaul, Billy Connolly and "Ally McBeal's" Portia de Rossi. The film has an inviting mellow look, having been shot in an unnamed Toronto amid fine old buildings for a deliberately retro feeling.

Escaped con Trevor Finch (Slater) has just checked into a comfortable old hotel when he finds Allen's Critical Jim pointing a gun at him. Jim is a hit man hired to eliminate one Cletis Tout, whose identity Finch has assumed. Jim is not your everyday coldblooded killer-for-hire. They don't call him Critical for nothing, as he is an impassioned, discriminating movie buff who loves the good stories the great old movies told. Because good stories have grown scarce on the screen, Jim is keen to hear Finch's. Quick on his feet, Finch says: "It's got it all. A jewel heist, a prison break, a girl."

Finch is not exaggerating: His tale is tall, funny and confounding, and shouldn't be given away here; let's just say the plot is deliciously convoluted. All that's necessary to know is that Finch and Dreyfuss' Micah have become pals in prison, and the idea is that once they break out, Micah will retrieve loot he concealed before being caught.

All of Ver Wiel's developments are clever: how Micah pulled off the caper in the first place and how Finch intends to retrieve the goods once complications inevitably escalate are funny, inspired sequences.

In the meantime, mutual attraction blossoms between Finch and Micah's daughter Tess--and Critical Jim becomes more concerned that life imitates art. At every turn, Ver Wiel, who has been a stand-up comic and an actor, knows what he's doing. When Finch begins to spin his story, reaching back in time, Critical Jim exclaims, "Ah, the flashback! Much maligned, often misunderstood!"--and goes on to cite Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" as the perfect example of its use.

Ver Wiel himself is no slouch at the flashback. When he's building action, furthering plot and cutting back to Critical Jim and Finch in that hotel room, their dialogue is always witty. At the right moment, the story takes off with no looking back.

It's hard to imagine anyone in the cast not having a good time; the high spirits are contagious yet the portrayals are free of winks and nudges. Connolly is hilarious as a free-spirited, corrupt coroner and RuPaul is reliably outrageous as the real Tout's nosey, insinuating neighbor. Randy Edelman's score is rightly romantic, and director of photography Jerzy Zielinski's camerawork casts a warm glow over everything. "Who Is Cletis Tout?" is crisply contemporary in its sensibility while offering a deft tip of the hat to beloved genres--the heist, the prison breakout thriller, the gangster picture and screwball comedy.

After "Who Is Cletis Tout?," no one should have to ask, "Who is Chris Ver Wiel?"


MPAA rating: R, for language, some violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: Some of the jokes are too adult for youngsters and some of the brief violence too intense.

'Who Is Cletis Tout?'

Christian Slater ... Trevor Finch

Tim Allen ... Critical Jim

Richard Dreyfuss ... Micah

Portia de Rossi ... Tess

Billy Connolly ... Dr. Savian

RuPaul ... Ginger Markum

A Paramount Classics release of a Fireworks Pictures and Peter Hoffman presentation of a Fireworks Entertainment/Itasca Pictures production. Writer-director Chris Ver Wiel. Producers Jay Firestone, Adam Haight, Matt Grimaldi, Robert Snukal, Dan Grodnik. Executive producer Daniel Diamond. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor Roger Bondelli. Music Randy Edelman. Costumes Betsy Cox. Production designer Charles Rosen. Art director Peter Emmink. Key set decorator Michael McShane. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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