13 November 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards
Released in 2000 by Warner Bros.
Written by Michael Kapner

A Dentist named Oz(Matthew Perry), gets a new neighbor who he instantly recognizes as “Jimmy the Tulip” (Bruce Willis) an infamous mob hitman. Oz gets caught up in a vendetta between Jimmy and his former boss, and a scenario where everybody wants to kill everybody else.

“Yards” is an off-target movie, it’s about Oz when it should be about Jimmy, who is an amazing character, seeded by some great cast design.

In “Story” Robert McKee argues that the dimensionality of a character is expressed in the surrounding cast. With Sophie, Jimmy is a cold killer, but with Jill, the hopeful hitperson in-training, he’s a supportive lover. When Jimmy is alone with Oz, he’s at ease, and a friendly guy. In the presence of fellow hitman Frankie, he’s always holding a weapon. Though a simple dichotomy of “hitman with a heart” may feel a little stale, it’s more compelling than “Dentist with no-particularly-contradictory-characteristics-at-all”.

I’m not so sure Jimmy isn’t the main character, as the climax of the film revolves around Jimmy’s decision: whether or not to kill Oz. (SPOLIER: he doesn’t). There’s no real tension. Who’d believe that Bruce Willis would whack Matthew Perry? If the audience is going buy the final dilemma, need to see the situation’s alternative beforehand. If we don’t see Jimmy kill a guy like Oz, we don’t know the consequences of his final decision. There’s a lot of exposition about Jimmy, but little action. Would the climax of “Star Wars” be so tense if we didn’t SEE what happened to planet Aldreaan first?

That said, Michael Kapner’s screenplay is a joy. Most comedy endings are predictable: the guy gets the girl, the innocent kids on death row are acquitted, the objective is obtained and they live happily ever after. But “Yards” employs a clever series of Hitchcockian plot twists and revelations, keeping the audience guessing at the final resolution, and interested in the story (even if the lead characters aren’t interesting) .

“The Whole Nine Yards” is about an everyman thrown in with some deeply weird people. And as such, a successful connection with the audience depends on how they relate to the everyman in question. With Oz, I just… don’t. Maybe it’s because the character is written with the same depth as the wacky hitmen he’s surrounded by , or maybe I just don’t find Matthew Perry all that appealing, lacking in that Cary Grant “It” factor. Perhaps if it was Jeff Daniels taking pratfalls and proving his virtue under fire, I’d have a different reaction. But I’m just not invested in Oz’s progress in all of this mess.

To date, “The Whole Nine Yards” is arguably Jonathan Lynn’s most successful directorial effort, with the highest opening weekend gross of any other of his films. (and this is the guy who still managed to get work after ‘Greedy’). And although I don’t particularly care for it, I certainly appreciate it more than “The Fighting Temptations”.

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