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MOVIE REVIEW : Comedy on a Long Leash : ‘Mad Dog and Glory’ is a small gem of deadpan humor and yearning hearts.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Mad Dog and Glory” (citywide) is a romance for the cynical and a comedy for those who laugh most when the jokes are hardest to get. A gentle fable put together by people whose previous work has been anything but nice, the film takes strength from its contradictions and becomes a small gem of deadpan humor and yearning hearts.

The hearts belong to the diffident Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie (Robert De Niro), a cop who hasn’t drawn his revolver in 15 years, and an intrepid young bartender named Glory (Uma Thurman). Unattached residents of Chicago, both come under the irresistible influence of Frank “The Money Store” Milo (Bill Murray), part mobster, part fairy godfather, a loan shark in therapy who does stand-up comedy on the side because what he really craves is recognition.

Perfectly suited to Murray’s cynical, seen-it-all hauteur, Frank Milo is merely the most flamboyant of novelist-screenwriter Richard Price’s collection of daft yet dangerous eccentrics. Unlike most cookie-cutter cop movies, “Mad Dog and Glory’s” script has an idiosyncratic sensibility, more Damon Runyon than “RoboCop,” and in John McNaughton it has a director who can both understand it and bring it to life.

If Price’s previous works (“The Color of Money,” “Sea of Love,” the best-selling novel “Clockers”) have not always looked on the bright side of things, McNaughton’s debut film, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” went Price and everyone else one better. Having them both combine on a romance may be unexpected, but it certainly keeps things from getting uncomfortably mushy.

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Also unexpected is “Mad Dog’s” low-key tone. Unafraid of starting slow and building, this film takes awhile to get started, and its humor is so uncompromisingly low-key that when the jokes do show up it’s not immediately clear if you’re meant to laugh or not.

Nicknamed “Mad Dog” by ironic friends on the Chicago police force, Wayne Dobie is an unflappable evidence technician who works the night shift, sleeping by his desk and investigating bloody crime scenes before the bodies are moved. “You’re a sensitive, intelligent human being,” his brash partner Mike (David Caruso) tells him somberly. “If I ever had an intelligent thought, it would die of loneliness.”

One night, while searching for Twinkies near a crime scene, Wayne stumbles upon a convenience store robbery. As he calmly tries to talk the perpetrator out of killing a customer lying face down on the floor, the potential victim is mouthing off to the gunman, nearly getting blown away in the process, and Wayne ends up saving him in spite of himself.

A few days later, Wayne is summoned to the Comic Cazie club, where, after a nervous bartender spills boiling coffee on him, he meets Frank Milo, formerly the man on the floor. A not-quite-made member of the mob (“I know guys, guys know me”) who’s been told by his therapist that he ought to be grateful to Wayne, Frank is a master of menacing (and often comic) eloquence. “I can be the expediter of your dreams,” he grandly tells Wayne, but if circumstances change, “your life will become a raging sea.”

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After a night of inebriated camaraderie with Frank, Wayne is awakened far too early the next morning by Glory, the bartender who spilled the coffee, who has been sent by his new best friend to (a) make sure Wayne’s burned hand is OK and (b) make sure any other wants Wayne has for the next week are gratified. “It’s not a sex thing,” she tells him earnestly. “I’m like a thank-you present. A seven-day singing telegram.”

Totally self-sufficient, or so he thinks, Wayne is completely dumbfounded at Glory’s arrival, and De Niro’s continual befuddlement is easily the funniest he’s been since “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!,” his very first films with director Brian De Palma. Always the best of actors, De Niro’s work is more interior than usual here, and his role as the most reluctant, inarticulate swain in town gets funnier as his confusion about what to do about this major break in his routine increases.

Matching him scene for scene is Murray, an overly grateful lion who absolutely refuses to leave Androcles alone. And Thurman, though the script has her functioning more as a catalyst than a major player, is exactly right as well. Especially notable in a supporting role is Mike Starr as Harold, Frank’s stolid man-of-all-work, who drinks Chivas and milk and thinks he sees celebrities behind every lunch counter.

Though its unhurried pace and ultimately sweet nature give “Mad Dog and Glory” (rated R for sexuality, language, violence and drug content) the feeling more of a diversion than a major work, those who get into its eccentric comic rhythms will definitely be charmed. Watching De Niro’s Mad Dog cheerfully prepare to examine a corpse to the strains of Louis Prima singing “I Ain’t Got No Body” on a restaurant jukebox may not be to everybody’s taste, but, like the rest of this genially cracked endeavor, it can’t help but make you laugh.

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‘Mad Dog and Glory’ Robert De Niro: Wayne Uma Thurman: Glory Bill Murray: Frank Milo David Caruso: Mike Mike Starr: Harold Tom Towles: Andrew

A Martin Scorsese/Barbara De Fina production, released by Universal Pictures. Director John McNaughton. Producers Barbara De Fina, Martin Scorsese. Executive producer Richard Price. Screenplay Richard Price. Cinematographer Robby Muller. Editors Craig McKay, Elena Maganini. Costumes Rita Ryak. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design David Chapman. Art director Mark Haack. Set decorator Leslie Pope. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (sexuality, language, violence and drug content).


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