Termagant of Endearment

Liv Tyler makes the boys go crazy in One Night at McCool's

Visualize a pretty young woman and a handsome young man heading for the bedroom. She has just suggested that she wants to show him what she really wants, so naturally he begins unzipping his trousers en route to the bed. Oblivious to his loud boxers, she sits and begins swooning over her motley scrapbook of home furnishings and décor, comprising her dreams of material comfort. He doesn't get it, she doesn't get him, and pretty soon people will become terribly unpleasant and begin shooting at one another.

Like some errant, black-sheep Coen brothers movie that slipped away in the night only to be shorn and butchered by neighboring filmmakers, One Night at McCool's is set in an obnoxious alterna-America populated by obtuse caricatures. While this production from Michael Douglas is being touted as a sexy romantic comedy, it's more precise to think of it as big, loud fun for when you're feelin' dumb. It's slick and funny, but it's funny the way that vomiting is funny, the way that falling down stairs or having a seizure is funny. Laughter is inevitable as long as one checks one's humanity at the door.

Taking its cues from the notion that a girl with great assets will turn men into asses, McCool's focuses upon Milla Jovovich or Jennifer Love-Hewitt or Liv Tyler or one of those actresses, if you can tell the difference. Wait a minute... OK, just checked -- it's definitely Tyler. So Tyler plays Jewel, an incarnation of erotic electricity who also happens to be a selfish, manipulative monster. (Like J.R.R. Tolkien's Arwen, whom she'll portray in The Lord of the Rings, she's also a magical being here; she can go to the bathroom without making a sound.) The handsome young man in question is the aptly named Randy (Matt Dillon, daily drinker from the fountain of youth), a bartender at the titular blue-collar watering hole whose primary skills seem to be drinking from a plunger and... well... the obvious.

Amazingly unfazed that the men she scams tend to try to rape her, Jewel is rescued by Randy from her violent boyfriend, Utah (comedian Andrew "Dice" Clay, here ghastly and irascible). In her meticulously disheveled red velvet dress, she's sex on wheels and probably too much trouble for Randy, who opts to leave her behind (literally) in the parking lot of McCool's. She'll have none of that, however, and quickly integrates herself into his ratty old fixer-upper, left to him by his dear mother. Employing the lusty knave and his house as stepping stones toward realizing her dream of domestic bliss, the girl ruthlessly exploits her gifts to get what she wants.

"A woman after my own heart," concedes Mr. Burmeister (Douglas), a grizzled old salt in whom Randy confides. In a bad Midwestern shirt and Cro-Magnon hairpiece copied from the one Steve Van Zandt wears on The Sopranos, Douglas gives himself the vanity role in his vanity project, playing unctuous and crudely cool. Functioning as Randy's confidant in the awkward setting of a rural Missouri bingo hall, Burmeister listens intently as the confused lad deems Jewel "not the kind of girl you run into in a dark alley." The more Burmeister listens, however, the more he realizes she's exactly that kind of girl, making his volatile role in the action all the more luridly attractive.

Although it waxes and wanes in its multiple perceptions, McCool's strives to be three stories in one, as two other men lose their minds over Jewel, confiding their respective flashbacks to a therapist (Reba McEntire) and a priest (Richard Jenkins). Paul Reiser (who crassly suggests seeing the film three times to garner its producers 27 bucks) plays a sort of cousin to Randy, an upscale lawyer whose blasé suburban existence causes him to drool over Jewel at every opportunity. John Goodman, on the other hand, plays a cop who stakes out Jewel in Randy's house, collecting clues to the crimes she's catalyzing but also projecting all manner of virgin purity and feminine glory onto the undeserving shrew.

The reason McCool's works -- for all its implausibility and sub-Three Stooges humor -- is that these diverging perceptions were carefully interwoven by the late screenwriter Stan Seidel, to whom the film is dedicated. The characterizations are ugly, but Seidel's gift for grotesque exaggeration -- much like that of the Coens -- hits America's neurotic bull's-eye. Whether it's Goodman's good man setting up foolproof rationalizations ("Why would God fill me with this desire if I wasn't meant to be with her?") or Reiser's lech justifying screwing his cousin's girl ("It's not like I never did anything for him!"), these are some fine warts on display.

And yes, Tyler shakes her groove thing countless times to the desired effect, but all this jiggling would be for naught if a pro like Goodman weren't there to suffer spasms of lust attended by guilt and denial, thereafter processing the whole mess into some deranged form of idolatry. Likewise Reiser (who hasn't lost his knack for playing the weasel he perfected in Aliens) puts an entirely different spin on Jewel while seducing her and/or becoming her victim. Sorry ladies, Goodman obviously appended a no-nudity clause to his contract, but Reiser really wants us to behold him in S&M leather, if that's something that'll coax you to the theater.

Framed with smashing style by Norwegian director Harald Zwart, McCool's often feels like a funky '70s action flick souped up for a new era. Tyler is often attended by flashy visual effects, and the camera swoops around like an animal, giving the art of moviemaking a wild zing. It's only a shame that, despite its attempts to be ironic, the movie is literally a commercial for DVD consumption, failing to mention the evil zoning technology programmed into the discs by the powers that be greedy.

Ultimately McCool's boils down to whether or not Tyler represents all things to all men. Oddly, she seems determined here to prove that she is more than just her body... by exploiting her body. This pageant of cheap bumping and grinding will work for many, but this critic also suggests that her entire physical vocabulary could be blown away by one flutter of Emma Thompson's eyelids.

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