Film Reviews

Dead Heads

Remember this joke? Question: How can you lose ten pounds of ugly fat? Answer: Cut off your head.

Well, according to the press kit for 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, the average human head -- dead and drained of blood -- weighs 4.4 pounds. I can't imagine the heads of those who made this movie weigh much more when completely filled; 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag appears to have been made by people with nothing between their ears.

The plot is one of those one-joke high/low concept things that probably sounded good in story meetings. Joe Pesci plays Tommy Spinelli, a Mafia bagman who is required to deliver the heads of eight mob hits to a big-league goombah. Of course, a mix-up at the airport switches Tommy's cargo with an identical-looking duffel belonging to Charlie (Andy Comeau), a medical student en route to a Mexican vacation with his girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) and her parents (Dyan Cannon and George Hamilton).

With crosscutting not seen since the days of D.W. Griffith, we shuttle back and forth between the hapless vacationers and Tommy trying to track them down. To find out their whereabouts, Tommy grills and tortures -- in a "cute" way -- Charlie's two med school roommates (David Spade and Todd Louiso). When it's discovered that some of the heads have been misplaced, Tommy visits the hospital's cryogenics lab to pilfer a few reasonable facsimiles.

Can you stand it?
As a first-time director, screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) might have been wiser not to attempt a farce. What he ends up with is a farce of a different kind: Unfunny jokes are bad enough, but mistimed unfunny jokes are worse. The actors, especially Cannon and Hamilton, squabble and cluck and carry on like ... well ... like they've lost their heads. (They might be saying to themselves, "Bring me the head of my agent.") Since they were the main reason I checked out this film, their humor-impaired shenanigans were a double letdown.

Not that it's their fault. They're troupers. Their desperation at having to work up something out of nothing is the film's only sign of life. Cannon isn't in the movies much anymore, which is the movie world's loss -- she can be altogether sexy and knockabout, low-slung and sly. But she's in that Nowhere Zone for actresses over 50 in Hollywood; apparently the studio bosses think we'd be much better off trying to titter at twentysomethings.

Hamilton has often been undervalued as a farceur because his public image is so Hollywood-oily: a tanned -- no, make that cured -- sub-Cary Grant with a wife-swapper smile and a coif that makes Jerry Lewis's seem dry and flaky. As a baby, Hamilton must have worn a tuxedo shirt for a bib.

But Hamilton has a saving grace as a celebrity icon. He knows how to make fun of his smarmy sleekness. He's more than a good sport -- he's an expert sport. As the lounge-lizardy vampire in Love at First Bite or as the son of Zorro in Zorro, the Gay Blade, Hamilton was deeply silly in ways that played off his faux elegance. Comic actors who goof around with their glow can seem more radiant than ever. Emma Thompson, in her roles in comedies such as The Tall Guy or Much Ado About Nothing, sometimes has this radiance; she can bring out the giddy carnal spirit crouching behind her precision-toned poise. She'd pair up well with Hamilton.

But back to 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. Joe Pesci should really try to keep away from any more mob parts. He's okay here, but he's doing variations on a theme that wasn't all that hot to begin with. After Goodfellas and Casino, and all the other films in which he seems to be playing mob guys even when he isn't, Pesci is in danger of turning into a squawk box with garlic breath. His comic riffs on past mob parts don't have the tingle that, say, Brando brought to his role in The Freshman, where he pulled off a comic version of Don Corleone.

Some people felt betrayed by Brando in that film, as if he were drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But -- aside from needing the money -- he probably did it because he figured he might as well show all the Godfather imitators and parodists how it's really done. And he was marvelous, proving once again there's no parodist like a self-parodist.

But -- ah, yes -- back to 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. David Spade and Todd Louiso are pretty funny when they're acting squeamish around cadavers. The severed heads -- eight mugs frozen in mid-yowl -- were created by Camom Studios and its makeup whiz, Keith Vanderlaan, and they're more expressive than any of the real actors. I can think of a few more heads from this movie I'd like to see in that duffel bag.

8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.
Directed by Tom Schulman. With Joe Pesci, Kristy Swanson, David Spade, George Hamilton and Dyan Cannon.

Rated R.
92 minutes.

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Peter Rainer