Christopher Guest demonstrated last year, with "Waiting for Guffman," that he couldn't direct traffic. But that was OK, because he surrounded himself with some smart comedians well-versed in the art of improvisation--Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard and Guest himself. With that troupe in front of the camera, behind-the-camera technique hardly mattered.
With "Almost Heroes," Guest has only Matthew Perry of "Friends," who's more adept when working off an urbane script, and the late Chris Farley, whose improvisational skills were limited to yelling and wildly shaking. The screenplay--credited to sitcom writers whose previous credits unpromisingly include "Nurses," "Full House" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show"--is indifferently crafted, and since Guest himself doesn't appear and Levy is relegated to a tiny role that merely requires mad eye-rolling and sputtering with a bad accent, there's no one around to punch things up with some noodling in the movie's margins.
All we're left with is a lame script and dithering direction, a lethal combination.
"Almost Heroes" concerns a pair of deservedly obscure explorers who race Lewis & Clark across the Northwest Territory to the Pacific Ocean, the boorish Bartholomew Hunt (Farley, inevitably) and the foppish Leslie Edwards (Perry). With a motley band of crass, largely interchangeable crew members in tow, they pratfall their way through the wilderness, stumbling through an inconsequential series of formless sketches before they reach their final destination: the requisite 90-minute running time to qualify this as a feature film.
Hunt and Edwards actually manage to cover some ground, but the jokes go nowhere. The crew members cavort with straw mannequins passed off as hookers. They endure bagpipe music. They panic at the sight of a squirrel. They confront a vain conquistador who brags about his luxuriant mane of hair. Hunt battles an eagle for its eggs; the joke is that the same cheesy stock footage of a soaring eagle is used repeatedly.
It also appears that a running gag was set up concerning a crewman who leaves body parts strewn across the Pacific Northwest, but it's abandoned after only two missing appendages. Indeed, Ronald Roose's editing suggests a mercy killing: He cuts abruptly away from many scenes before they reach any payoff, suggesting he was trying to put them out of their misery.
In his last movie, Farley wasn't attempting to stretch himself; his fans will get what they expect. Perry mugs rather too broadly and delivers his lines as if he's playing the easily scandalized genteel guy in some low-rent burlesque show.
"Almost Heroes" is as misguided as its protagonists; the only difference is that while Hunt and Edwards nominally reach their destination, Guest and his cast remain lost throughout, fumbling around in the wilderness in search of even one inspired comic moment.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude humor and nudity. Times guidelines: The unsophisticated jokes are aimed at young teenage boys; all others beware.
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Chris Farley: Bartholomew Hunt
Matthew Perry: Leslie Edwards
Eugene Levy: Guy Fontenot
Turner Pictures presents a Di Novi Pictures production, distributed by Warner Bros. Director Christopher Guest. Screenplay Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe, Boyd Hale. Producer Denise Di Novi. Directors of photography Adam Kimmel, Kenneth MacMillan. Production designer Joseph T. Garrity. Editor Ronald Roose. Music Jeffery CJ Vanston. Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.