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JULY 6, 1998:  At the very end of the credits, we’re assured that no animals were harmed during the making of Dr. Dolittle. They probably made out like bandits, providing their trainers’ some cash for doling out extra treats like banana chips and raisins and peanuts in reward for moving their paws and wings just so. But what about their dignity? Can they really be proud of appearing, by and large, as a bunch of wiseacres in this middling comedy?

Dr. Dolittle is based on the children’s books by Hugh Lofting and stars Eddie Murphy as the title character who has the ability to talk to animals. As the story goes, Dolittle began talking to animals when he was a small boy, but his father (played by Ossie Davis), concerned about this trait, calls in a priest to purge his son. Flash forward some 20 years and the exorcism seems to have held. Not only does Dolittle not talk to animals, he doesn’t seem to like them that much. When his family’s away he means to take care of his daughter’s missing guinea pig by setting up dozens of rat traps. But a bump on the head brings his gift back so that he can talk to dogs and owls and even drunk French monkeys. Word spreads in the animal kingdom, and soon a horde of beasts in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of ailments appear at his doorstep, wanting to be cured by this doctor who can understand them. While Dolittle is jazzed by the challenge of treating animals, he is a people doctor working out a big-money deal with an HMO, where his new-found ability might be frowned upon.

Murphy knows a thing or two about career decisions, having seen himself peak in the Eighties and then peter away to nothing via ego-driven films such as A Vampire in Brooklyn. Murphy made a small comeback with 1996’s The Nutty Professor, a broad farce that showcases his skills of performing multiple characters and of going along with the ridiculous. In Dr. Dolittle, Murphy is a bit more staid, the classic film dad who’s too preoccupied with career and how things should be to really pay attention to his family. But like The Nutty Professor, Dr. Dolittle’s humor is something less than sophisticated. It is, in a word, rectum-centric, posting no less than 12 bottom-focused jokes – from a rat with gas to a guinea pig who gets sat on after falling in a toilet.

Eddie Murphy in Dr. Dolittle.

While this may sound raucous, Dr. Dolittle is rather hum-drum. This may be because the filmmakers – director Betty Thomas and screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin – were too focused on how a movie should be rather than thinking through its possibilities. Sure, a dog at a vet moaning, “There’s a thermometer in my butt” has its place, but a whole movie of this? The film has its moments – the dog with the tennis-ball obsessive-compulsive disorder, for one. But these moments are rare, little flashes to get from point A to point B so that Dr. Dolittle can become a good father and learn to live through his conscience.

In the end, the real fun of Dr. Dolittle is trying to guess the myriad celebrities who provide the voices for the animals.

Out of Sight

Early in the snappy crime flick Out of Sight, federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and on-the-lam bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) are spooning in the trunk of a car. Having taken Karen hostage, Jack places his hand on her thigh and turns the conversation to Faye Dunaway movies. In one of Dunaway’s films, Karen finds the characters’ relationship too fast, too unreal. And with that, Out of Sight’s filmmakers have neatly taken care of the issue of why exactly Karen and Jack are drawn to each other. There are no whys, it just is. Case closed.

More of a mystery, perhaps, is what indie king Steven Soderbergh is doing directing such a mainstream film. Soderbergh practically single-handedly sparked independent films’ upswing with his 1989 film sex, lies, and videotape. Since then he’s made a movie about Kafka and one about a 12-year-old boy set during the Depression, and he taped a Spalding Gray monologue and came out with an indescribable comedy titled Schizopolis.

Whatever the reason, Soderbergh gives Out of Sight a little street cred, though movies, like this one, based on Elmore Leonard novels (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown) have been doing all right on their own lately. The Soderbergh touch here is his use of freeze-framing so that that little piece of the character gets stuck in your head.

Like the other Elmore Leonard works, there are a multitude of characters – cool bad guys, really bad guys, the schmuck, the tough-as-nails woman – and a convoluted scheme. In this case, Foley has broken out of a Florida jail determined not to grow old there. Armed with information regarding uncut diamonds, he and former jail-mate Buddy (Ving Rhames) head to Detroit for the score. Complicating matters is Karen, who’s on his trail and on whom Foley’s got a serious crush. Plus, there’s the doofus stoner Glenn (Steve Zahn) who blabbed about the job to the mean ex-con Snoopy (Don Cheadle), who wants in on the deal.

The heist is secondary to what’s building up between Foley and Karen. Foley (a role that perfectly suits Clooney) is the suave con, even-tempered and crafty. But the pull of Karen makes him prone to risky behavior. For her part, Karen is confident, knows how to fill a skirt and work a shotgun. Yet her attraction to Foley corrupts her judgment. They have a system working where Foley walks right into her hands and she lets him go until their next meeting, and so on.

George Clooney and Ving Rhames in Out of Sight.

At times, this cat-and-mouse game gets a tad monotonous so that you might find yourself thinking, Just do it already. But when the time comes, you realize that the payoff wasn’t half as interesting as getting there.

Hav Plenty

Hav Plenty shows we’re making some progress, at least over outings such as I Got the Hook-Up and Booty Call. This smart-ass, off-kilter comedy featuring Chenoa Maxwell, Christopher Scott Cherot, Tammi Katherine Jones, and Robinne Lee is not nearly as smart-ass or as off-kilter as it wants to be, but coming on the heels of some pretty dreadful movies marketed primarily to black audiences, it’s a move in the right direction.

Cherot (who also wrote and directed the film) plays sensitive hunk and struggling writer Lee Plenty, who is comically deterred from his first-person chronicles when he falls into a weekend feeding-frenzy of females (two sisters and a houseguest, played by Maxwell, Jones, and Lee). That’s about all that happens, but Cherot has a knack for packing a screen with interestingly revealing close-ups, and his screenplay has given the actors riffs of dialogue that pay off in a circuitous, Woody Allen sort of way.

The characters are middle-class and well-educated. Plenty is penniless, but his poverty is treated, rather awkwardly, as joke material. Indeed, the film’s most significant fault is that, in its eagerness to establish the social credentials of its milieu, it scores some fairly low laughs off homelessness and deprivation.

On the whole, however, Hav Plenty is intelligent fun. A preview audience was rolling in the aisles, especially whenever Jones, playing the shortest-tempered of the would-be sirens on the make, glides into a scene growling snappy one-liners like a young Eartha Kitt. – Hadley Hury

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