ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE
Directors: Mark Cullen and Robb Cullen
Cast: Bruce Willis, Thomas Middleditch, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Adam Goldberg, Famke Janssen
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 6/16/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 15, 2017
Looked at from a certain angle, Once Upon a Time in Venice plays as a document of how much humiliation Bruce Willis is willing to undergo for a paycheck. This might be the best way to look at the movie, the debut feature of fraternal writers/directors Mark and Robb Cullen. It's certainly the most amusing way, which isn't saying much in the context of the rest of this laugh-less endurance challenge.
What do we learn of Willis' tolerance for embarrassment? Well, in the first act, his character is caught in a compromising situation with a woman much younger than him by the woman's brothers. He dives off the balcony of his second-floor apartment and into the complex's swimming pool. In need of a quick getaway from the hulking brothers, Willis' character proceeds to ride his skateboard up and down the streets of Venice Beach, California (This needs to be clarified, just in case one might be thinking that the movie at least would provide the backdrop of the eponymous Italian city).
I haven't mentioned the most important detail of the sequence yet: He's naked. Yes, Willis' dignity goes off the same balcony from which his stunt double leaps (Let's give the actor the benefit of the doubt that he wasn't skating buck naked for as a long as he could have been). There's also a moment when his character is stopped by a cop and hides his pistol between his clenched butt cheeks. The Cullens make sure we see it, and they also make sure to include a little popping noise when Willis' character removes the gun.
We can look at this two ways: Either Willis is a good sport, or he simply doesn't care anymore. It's possible for both to be true, and that seems to be the case here. Surely at some point during the shooting of that sequence, Willis had to notice that the Cullens were getting a lot of coverage of his character's late-night, nude escape. That should have been a sign that the filmmakers are begging for laughs, but Willis kept going. Even before any filming began, though, there's the more essential thing: The scene isn't funny in concept, either. It's desperate as an idea, and it's even more desperate in execution.
The whole movie is an act of overcompensation. In it, Willis plays Steve Ford, the only licensed private detective in the city. The plot has Steve finding himself caught up in multiple investigations and criminal activities. To call the plotting convoluted would be, in comparison to what's here, a compliment. That description would imply that there are connecting elements involved.
Steve encounters a bunch of stereotypes—from a Latino drug dealer named Spider (Jason Momoa) to a "miserly" real estate magnate named Lou "the Jew" Jewison (Adam Goldberg)—before meeting a few more—a group of transgender prostitutes, a loan shark (played by Ken Davitian) whose ethnicity is that he's broadly "ethnic," and, because pigeon-holing one race or ethnicity into criminal roles apparently isn't enough, an African-American drug dealer (played Wood Harris), who randomly shows up in the third act for further complications. The various MacGuffins include a car (stolen by Spider), a lot of cocaine (stolen from Spider), the home of Steve's parents (bought on the cheap by Lou), a real estate deal undermined by a graffiti artist (who specializes in detailed, exaggerated depictions of male genitalia), and Steve's beloved dog (stolen by multiple parties throughout the story).
The complications arise, are solved without much hassle (because the screenplay is juggling so many of them), and then return without much rhyme or reason whenever a different one is resolved. The supporting players include Steve's wannabe partner John (Thomas Middleditch), who offers a running commentary on things (complete with racially and ethnically prejudicial descriptions followed by non-apologies of the "Aw, shucks, that probably sounded racist" variety) and sporadically shows up to embarrass himself slightly less than Steve (He goes undercover dressed in a fancy cowboy outfit—a costume that, apparently, was the line Willis wouldn't cross), and Dave (John Goodman), a mopey sad-sack who runs a surf shop and is going through a messy divorce. Goodman's occasional appearances offer a glimmer of hope, until one is reminded of the tedious character he's playing.
On and on this goes. It would be easy to say that Once Upon a Time in Venice is actively offensive, but that might be giving the Cullens too much credit. The movie works too hard for laughs, and it's grasping at the laziest means possible.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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