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Metro Pulse Feet of Clay

Not even Janeane Garofalo can make much sense out of Clay Pigeons.

By Coury Turczyn

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  She is the inspiration for pale-faced, sarcastic, turtleneck-wearing college boys across the country—she with her withering stare, crossed arms, and black hair. Her lips seem ever-curled in preparation for launching a ripping put-down or sardonic observation. With her slightly chubby build, she wields her intelligence like a shield against men's expectations, flashing witticisms that are just this short of condescension.

Oh, Janeane, Janeane, Janeane... why must you appear in such cruddy movies?

Janeane Garofalo has carved out a persona for herself that we haven't seen since Hollywood's "Golden Age" (the one in the '30s)—the fast-talking, take-no-guff-from-stupid-males, knows-what-she-wants-and-how-to-get-it dame. Highlighted by Rosalind Russell's performance in His Girl Friday (1940), it's the type of strong-willed female character that's been missing from American movies for decades. Even as our society has progressed, movies seem to have regressed, with most major women's roles falling into one of three categories: victim, sidekick, or whore. But it's been interesting to watch Garofalo take her bitchy slacker persona into Hollywood and find roles that suit her; while the results have been hit or miss, she has managed to retain her dignity no matter how mediocre the material (well, except for The Matchmaker...nobody could've survived that hell).

A good case in point is her latest endeavor, Clay Pigeons. Despite the fact that the script is nearly pointless, Garofalo provides an oasis of smartness for viewers to cling to. While most of the characters in this Matt Healy-penned opus don't seem to know what the hell they're doing, Garofalo (playing, well, herself) barges into the vacuousness with such an impatience for stupidity that you wonder if she wrote her own lines.

The story, such as it is, details the predicament of one Clay (Joaquin Phoenix), a simple country mechanic in Mercer, Montana. While spending an afternoon shooting guns out in a field, his best friend Earl reveals that he knows Clay has been sleeping with his wife. Rather than just blow away Clay as most enraged cuckolds would do, Earl enacts an ingenious plan: He will kill himself with Clay's gun, thus framing him for murder and no doubt sending Clay to prison. And that's just what he does! But rather than simply telling his good friend the sheriff something like, "My friend shot himself," and having a forensic pathologist verify it, Clay cleverly decides to dispose of the body by blowing it up in Earl's truck. He gets away with the ruse, except that he tells Earl's widow—the slutty Amanda (Georgina Cates), who threatens to tell unless he keeps servicing her. Welllll, he refuses—so she kills his new girlfriend. Now, once again, instead of simply telling his good friend the sheriff something like, "Amanda shot my girlfriend to death," he obligingly dumps the body into a lake—which brings Garofalo's FBI agent to town. Boy, and if you think he's in trouble now, wait until we meet his mysterious pal, Lester (Vince Vaughn), a swaggering cowboy who might be involved in all this himself.

What was intended here, I think, was a dark comedy—the kind where gruesome murders can be funny, and where dumb main characters make sense. Unfortunately, Clay Pigeons isn't terribly witty. Nor is it suspenseful, mysterious, or frightening. The only genre Clay Pigeons seems to fall under is "indie," a label that has come to represent movies that are calculatedly offbeat without offering much in the way of a genuine story, logically told. Instead, what we have are a bunch of hip young actors mouthing dialogue that doesn't further much of anything other than their own careers. While Clay Pigeons' cast is excellent, it's lost in a storyless scenario.

Nobody plays troubled, simple-minded youths better than Joaquin Phoenix (To Die For), but not even he can overcome the script's inherent problem—that anyone with half a brain could extricate himself from this mess. And without much overt humor to make up for these lapses in logic, it becomes that much more noticeable no matter how effectively Phoenix plays dumb. Likewise, Vince Vaughn is a delight as the wisecracking, smarmy Lester, ever-attired in flashy cowboy shirts and ten-gallon hats. But he's so likably amusing, it's difficult to believe in his dark secret once it's revealed. All these improbabilities don't combine into an offbeat romp so much as a clichéd retread that takes itself too seriously.

Nevertheless, there is Janeane bringing her singular brand of Garofaloness to the picture. Clay Pigeons makes the most sense when her character goes to work, trying to figure out the truth in this muddle. Once again, she's smarter than the material she's found herself in, and more's the pity.

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