Boiled down to its narrative essence, One Night at McCool's could pass for a classic film noir. It centers on a treacherous, duplicitous dame who leaves a trail of emotionally wrecked men in her wake, just like The Killers and Out of the Past. It presents alternate versions of important plot events, just like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. And it prominently features Paul Reiser decked out in an outlandish S&M getup, just like....
Okay, there's no equivalent in classic noir for that one, although technology geeks dying to see an approximation are encouraged to plunder The Maltese Falcon and put Peter Lorre in a digitized thong. As the above mortifying description suggests, McCool's stakes its distinctiveness both on its comic treatment of the noir thriller tale and on its amplification of noir's sex-and-violence themes: which is to say, after a decade's worth of Tarantino knockoffs, it isn't distinctive in the least. The story unfolds with numbing familiarity. Jewel (Liv Tyler), an eye-popping redhead, drifts into and transforms the lives of three hapless punching bags: randy Randy, McCool's bartender (Matt Dillon); widowed and guilt-wracked Detective Dehling (John Goodman, who may as well drape a "Will Act for Food" sign around his neck); and insufferable lawyer Carl (Reiser). Rounding out the cast in the inevitable hit man role is co-producer Michael Douglas as "Mr. Burmeister," a grizzled Kirk Douglas lookalike who, after declining to count out a hefty cash advance from a distraught client, delivers one of the movie's few semi-memorable lines. "So, you trust me?" asks the mope. "No," Douglas shrugs. "But I do kill people."
Despite similar moments of jocularity, there's a certain pathos undergirding One Night at McCool's. And it's not just because writer Stan Seidel died before the film met its long-delayed release date, and thus suffered the indignity of obituaries that name the McCool's script ' which is saved from sitcom-level quality only by generous doses of dirty talk and casual violence ' as his primary legacy. The sadness of this enterprise is in what Liv Tyler puts herself through in exchange for above-the-title stature. The Jewel character is, as one would expect, developed in only one way; indeed, Tyler's cleavage is such a prominent part of director Harald Zwart's mise-en-scÃne that her Wonderbra probably qualified for a SAG card.
Kudos are due to Tyler, anyway, for at least trying to make something of a character who seems to base her every action on an all-consuming longing for a fixer-upper (a house, not a man), and who thus angles for a spot as the first femme fatale in noir history whose ambition is neither money nor power but the cover of Martha Stewart Living. Perhaps this ludicrous motive (hasn't she heard of the Fannie Mae Foundation?) was intended by the filmmakers as a savage critique of the essential meaningless of human contact under late capitalism. Or perhaps it reflects the creative desperation of a movie that works hardest at contriving funny ways to kill off its characters.
All is not indifference and incompetence in One Night at McCool's: Reiser's neurotic self-absorption ' essentially an extension of his TV persona ' succeeds in bringing a trace of actual wit to a film otherwise so completely convinced of its outrageousness that it uses a word like "McCool's" in its title. (Just wondering: could the "Mc-" prefix signal an unconscious acknowledgement of the film's generic blandness?) And any movie that uses the spit take so gratuitously can't be all bad. Still, One Night at McCool's is definitely a fixer-upper, only two steps removed from condemnation.