'Mixed Nuts' shells out sickening dose of slapstick, and pulls too many punches

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Mixed Nuts" sure is zany. It's also wacky, zonked and way-out. It just isn't very funny.

Nora Ephron's first film since "Sleepless in Seattle," the movie is long on people bumping into walls and doors, and short on just about every other civilized virtue. It's particularly demeaning to its star, Steve Martin, who is presented in an unappetizing light as a whining, kvetching incompetent.

Based on a French cult item called "Pere Noel Est Une Ordure" (you figure it out), the film looks as if it might be interesting: a farce set at a completely unprofessional suicide "hot line" office on the prime night of lonely guy despair, Christmas Eve. But Ephron's good taste keeps it from prancing into truly dangerous or subversive areas. It's not mean enough or gutty enough or black enough to be truly hilarious. It's an oxymoron: light black comedy.

What remains is an endless variety of unsurprising physical shtick, some cute plotting that grows more crazily maniacal and desperate as the movie progresses, and a lot of funny walks from Martin. If this is your cup of tea, then drink to the bottom and enjoy.

Martin plays Philip, drunk on compassion and weaker than a kitten, the totally hapless administrator of the Lifesavers hot line. When he isn't demonstrating how fragile his will and ego are, he's demonstrating his pedantry. Getting a call, he laboriously logs in date and time, and when he actually gets around to picking up, the desperate guy on the other end is long gone.

His staff isn't much more helpful: Catherine (Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks' wife) is a frustrated, flibbertigibbety spinster who gets so upset over some of her callers that she breaks down and has to go hide in the bathroom. Only the great Madeline Kahn is able to generate much comic energy as the unflappably precise and unquenchably unempathetic Mrs. Munchnik, who won't let anybody's suicide interfere with her dinner plans.

What passes for plot clicks in when the nasty landlord (Garry Shandling) delivers eviction notices, which require that Martin raise $5,000 or shut down Lifesavers. At the same time, Wilson's best friend, Juliette Lewis, and her charmless boyfriend, Anthony LaPaglia (why does this guy continue to get work?), show up, in the middle of a grotesque domestic dispute that revolves around possession of a handgun. Two other oddballs arrive: a hulking transvestite (Liev Schreiber) with romantic designs on Martin, and an escapee from "Saturday Night Live," Adam Sandler, doing a routine here that wasn't funny there -- the high-pitched neo-Tiny Tim ukulele-strumming singer.

Ephron has a wry take on male-female relationships that has distinguished her screenwriting and directing career, and underneath the wreckage, there's a hint of romantic comedy. Secretly, the movie is a rondelet, in which, as it opens, everybody is mismatched or unmatched, but by the end, through the imposition of farce mechanics, everybody has found his or her life mate. But that sweetness is totally at odds with the rest of the picture.

The endless physical comedy feels absurdly forced, but worst of all, the hot-line office itself is so irritating and unprofessional that one can't invest in its survival, which is only the key issue of the film. I understand the film's key comic device: that the operators of the line are far more neurotic than the people who call them. They need help worse than the potential suicides on the line.

But Ephron can't find a way to make this situation continually helpless. In fact, the staff members are so deeply irritating, the film becomes increasingly difficult to endure. One more crying jag by Wilson and I was out of there. I urge caution in approaching this film: The life you save may be your own.

"MIXED NUTS"

Starring: Steve Martin and Madeline Kahn

Director: Nora Ephron

Released by: Tri-Star

Rating: PG-13

**

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