Tennis-shoe-sole designer Richie (Craig Bierko) and his brain surgeon cousin Evan (Steven Weber) are sitting at adjacent slot machines in an Atlantic City casino, doing what losers at the blackjack table often do, punishing themselves by getting rid of their pocket change.
Richie is down to one quarter and asks Evan for the other two he needs to maximize his bet, and Evan obliges.
“Here, go crazy,” he says, turning over the two coins.
A moment later, the whole place is going crazy, as Richie hits a jackpot worth more than $436,000. The question, posed at this early moment in writer-director Larry David’s raucous, thin and wildly uneven “Sour Grapes,” is how do they split the money?
Fifty-fifty? One-third for Richie, two-thirds for Evan? How about nothing for Evan, except maybe his two quarters back?
It’s time to choose sides. The hard feelings and chaos that follow Richie’s decision are the sole purpose of a story that could have been comfortably told in a half-hour sitcom.
In fact, it could have been done as an episode of “Seinfeld,” which David co-created, and for which he has won two Emmys (and hit the jackpot himself.
Evan, whom Weber plays with a mixture of charm and adolescent pique, might have been written for Jerry Seinfeld himself.
And there are echoes of the other series regulars in Richie, and the two girlfriends.
In any event, “Sour Grapes” is a 90-minute sketch, in which the jackpot feud in Atlantic City sets off a chain of increasingly ridiculous events.
Evan is a successful doctor and doesn’t need the money, he just wants his share of the loot on principle and is willing to pay the cost that includes, the breakup of their friendship, the loss of their girlfriends, an attempted mercy killing and a botched testicle operation that turns a heartthrob soap opera star (Matt Keeslar) into a soprano.
Some of this is very funny, but it would probably be a lot funnier with a live audience, made up of people who are on the verge of hysterics even before the show begins.
There’s really just a single idea in play, and it’s stretched way beyond its playing time.
David’s attempts to flesh it out--with desperate subplots about Richie’s home-alone sex life; a chubby, middle-aged patient trying to hit on Evan’s young receptionist; and a few downtown vagrants who become beneficiaries of the fallout--merely amplify the shallowness of the script.
David’s direction is weak, too. He gets a solid performance from Weber, but he allows, or at least encourages, antics from newcomer Bierko that make Richie far more irritating than he’s intended to be.
It’s like being stuck in a room with Kramer through one of his manic cycles.
Still, “Seinfeld” fans facing withdrawal over the end of the series may find sweetness in “Sour Grapes.”
With lines like the one from Richie when his girlfriend dumps him--"I’ve seen you naked, that was my only goal!"--it’s clear that we’re seeing the beginning of the “Seinfeld” spawn.
* MPAA rating: R for language and sex-related humor. Times guidelines: one comic lovemaking scene with brief nudity.
Steven Weber: Evan
Craig Bierko: Richie
Karren Sillas: Joan
Robyn Peterman: Roberta
Matt Keeslar: Danny
A Castle Rock Pictures production, released by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Screenplay, director Larry David. Producer Laurie Lennard. Cinematography Victor Hammer. Production designer Charles Rosen. Editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly. Costumes Debra McGuire. Art director Chas. Butcher. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.