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Tucson Weekly Ashes To Ashes

Joaquin Phoenix doesn't Have Enough chemistry To Make 'Clay Pigeons' Fly.

By Stacey Richter

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  IT SEEMS LIKE Clay Pigeons would be a hip, funny, Tarantino-style thriller. It was directed by the twentysomething David Dobkin, and stars fashionable youngsters Janeane Garofalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Vince Vaughn. And Clay Pigeons tries very hard to be a funny, Tarantino-style thriller. But it's not. Even though there are lots of "wacky" murders and colorful characters, and even some genuinely funny episodes, Clay Pigeons just...lies there, like a lump of clay.

After I left the theater, I had a tough time figuring out what exactly made this movie so dissatisfying, since it had many of the elements of Pulp Fiction; and everybody seemed to like Pulp Fiction, though personally I can't remember it. After some soul searching, I concluded that two things doomed Clay Pigeons: First of all, none of the characters did anything for any reason. This is at odds with most people's life experience. Secondly, Phoenix is not cut out to be a leading man.

The story revolves around Clay Bidwell (Phoenix), a morose gas-station attendant with the angular frame and dark-stained eye sockets of an undertaker. I guess that's a good thing, because before we know it he's disposing of bodies left and right. First there's Clay's best friend, Earl (Gregory Sporleder). Clay is a "friend" to Earl the way Ms. Tripp was friend to Ms. Lewinsky; we quickly discover he's been poking the latter's bitchy wife Amanda (Georgina Cates) on a regular basis. Earl is distraught about the cuckolding, we learn, while he and Clay indulge in the fine old sport of drinking beer and shooting bottles. He is so distraught that he's going to kill himself, but before he does it Earl makes sure Clay understands that he has cleverly planned his suicide so that it will appear that Clay has murdered him.

Wow, what a smart guy! Clay sort of believes him though, and after Earl is dead he disposes of the body the way people in movies dispose of bodies--by putting it in a truck and rolling it over the edge of an abandoned quarry, at which point the truck obligingly explodes. Like the recent Rounders, Clay Pigeons was written by a first-time screenwriter and directed by a first-time director, both lads who seem to have gained the sum of their experience of the workings of the world at the movies. Thus, the setting here is a small town where everyone has a wrap-around porch, drives a pickup truck and eats grits at the diner. Everyone goes to the same honky-tonk bar for recreation. The jail has one little cell with mint green walls, etc.

Into this pre-described world waltzes Lester Long (Vaughn), a truck drivin' cowboy who does a little serial killin' on the side. He's the proverbial charming sociopath, and watching Vaughn be scary and smooth at the same time is one of the hidden treats of this movie. With no discernible effort, Long mesmerizes Clay, and before we know it, Clay is helping him dispose of bodies--sort of.

Clay is supposed to be "innocent," in this situation, and everybody keeps saying what a nice boy he is. The role seems to call for a Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant--one of Hitchcock's wrongfully accused heroes. But Phoenix has none of that everyman-on-a-bad-trip aura. He's such an inherently brooding, inward actor, so victimized to the core, that it's hard to believe he isn't a serial killer. Just look at his hunched shoulders--he's like a stray dog who's survived a hit by a car or two. You can't help but think he'd like to hit back.

But no, Vaughn gets to be the sociopath, though heavens knows why--he seems pleasant. There's some psychomumbled allusions to a "molester," but that doesn't make Long's drive to kill any more comprehensible. He's evil; just that, apparently.

Thank God for Garofalo. As Dale Shelby, an F.B.I. agent assigned to work on the case, she provides the only true note in the movie, as well as the few genuinely funny ones. Her officer Shelby seems as confused as we are as to why this small town comes predigested from TV and movies. "Your deputy's name is Barney?" she asks the Sheriff, incredulous. I was surprised to find what a good actor Garofalo proves herself here. Not only is her comic timing wonderful, she has the rare skill of making other actors shine in her presence. It's only when she's on screen with Phoenix that he finally inhabits his role, coming off like a cute, well-meaning little brother who's fallen in with the bad boys.

Though there are some good performances here, in the end Clay Pigeons is too trivial and inconsistent to add up to a good movie. Though of course, that depends on what the meaning of "is," is.

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