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Clay Pigeons flies close to the level of black comedy in a murder mystery.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Bill Clinton might sympathize with the plight of Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix), the hapless protagonist of Clay Pigeons. Like the embattled chief executive, Clay gets into trouble in the first place because of an adulterous affair. And he only makes a bad situation worse - much, much worse - by trying to cover up his misdeeds.

The big difference, of course, is that Bill Clinton has never been accused - except, maybe, by talk-radio callers - of being a serial killer. Then again, Clinton has never fallen under the influence of anyone like Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), a swaggering urban cowboy whose folksy sincerity and aggressive friendliness are a bit too obviously calculated to be taken at face value. Only someone as naive (or as desperate) as Clay would be pleased to hear that Lester "never forgets a friend."

Chances are good that you'll be reminded of Fargo as the complications accumulate and the body count rises in Clay Pigeons, a darkly humorous drama about serial killings, crimes of passion and inconvenient corpses in a small Montana town where folks are unaccustomed to such peculiarities. Working from a clever but derivative screenplay by Matthew Healy, first-time feature director David Dobkin works hard at balancing black comedy and bloody contrivance in the absurdist style of Joel and Ethan Coen. When Janeane Garofalo strolls into the story as Dale Shelby, a sharp-eyed, blunt-spoken FBI agent, you recognize her character right away as a soul mate, if not a smudged Xerox copy, of the police chief played to Oscar-worthy perfection by Frances McDormand. Call this one Fargo Lite, and you won't be far off the mark.

Phoenix, a soulfully intense young actor who has the hangdog look of a credulous patsy, is well cast as Clay, the sort of not-so-innocent anti-hero whose minor trespasses inevitably lead to grave dangers. Things start to spiral out of his control in the opening minutes of Clay Pigeons. Clay and Earl (Gregory Sporleder), his best buddy, are out in the middle of nowhere, drinking beer and using the bottles for target practice, when the buddy drops a bombshell: "I hear," Earl says, "you've been sleeping with my wife." "Who told you that?" Clay asks. "She did," Earl replies.

Clay expects the worst, but Earl has something even nastier in mind: He shoots himself with Clay's gun, making his own suicide appear to be murder. Certain he will be charged with homicide, Clay dumps the body into Earl's pickup, then sends the vehicle over a cliff to explode in a fiery crash. Amanda (Georgina Cates), Earl's widow, isn't sorry to see her husband go, but she's very upset when Clay seeks solace in the arms of another woman. Her raging jealousy leads to violence, which in turn leads to another cover-up.

Later on, Clay and Lester, his new best buddy, go fishing. While they're out on the lake, a woman's body rises to the surface. Once again, Clay panics. Indeed, he's so frightened that he fails to notice how calmly Lester responds to the grisly discovery. He pays dearly for his inability to grasp the obvious.

Like many other murder stories in our post-modern, post-Tarantino age, Clay Pigeons invites us to laugh at the juxtaposition of sex, violence and pop music. In one discomforting scene, a woman listens to the radio while eagerly awaiting a sexual interlude with a man who plans to stab her. It's supposed to be a joke - she's giggly and impatient for him to get down to business, he's delaying gratification through a perverse sort of foreplay - but it's not very funny, not even with Elvis Presley singing "It's Now or Never" on the soundtrack.

The movie works better when it sticks to relatively nonviolent confrontations. Vaughn is mesmerizing in his ability to convey an edge of menace in his back-slapping joviality. Garofalo is hilarious as she brandishes sarcasm as a lethal weapon. She's especially effective as Agent Shelby questions a very guilty-looking Clay: "You're dating one victim, you're having an affair with another, and you find the body of the third. Kind of a coincidence, wouldn't you say?" Bill Clinton should consider himself lucky that he didn't have to face this interrogator during his grand jury testimony.

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