Safe Men (1998)
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) fancy themselves as singer-songwriters, but they are unable to entertain a bar packed with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. When Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), the right hand man of one of the Jewish gangsters in Rhode Island, has mistaken them for legendary safe crackers, they find themselves in a quandary: perform the job that Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) wants done or get swim with the fishes.
“Safe Men,” written and directed by John Hamburg, is a farce that uses the lead actors’ chemistry as a crutch whenever the jokes miss the mark. And, boy, does it miss quite often. When the jokes work, however, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. Still, the ratio between unfunny to funny bits is far too large.
A standout is a scene involving the first safe that the hapless duo attempts to break into which happens to belong to another Jewish gangster, Leo (Harvey Fierstein), who runs a fencing operation behind a barbershop. Completely inept and constantly at each other’s throats about how certain things ought to be done, Sam and Eddie are caught by Hannah (Christina Kirk), Leo’s daughter. The funny thing is since she has a history of dating thieves, she does a surprising thing.
When the screenplay plays with our expectations combined with providing us a skeletal understanding of the motivations of characters who are about to commit bizarre actions, watching the interplay among the characters is fun and entertaining.
There are too many recycled ideas that distract from the plot. Frank (Mark Ruffalo) and Mitchell (Josh Pais), the real safe men, drop in and out of the story whenever it seems convenient. When they do show up, they act like baboons half the time and the script never bothers to convince us that they are smart and stealthy, two basic requirements, I would imagine, in being successful thieves. Maybe it would have been funnier if Frank and Mitchell had been completely different from Sam and Eddie instead of just playing a diluted version of them.
More frustrating is Giamatti not given a lot to do. I actually felt him wanting to be more challenged. The screenplay touches upon his character wanting to be treated like his boss valued him more. Once or twice there is a funny line or two about his line of work but there is not a time when we are given a chance to actually consider Veal Chop as more than a henchman. One serious moment might have given the character a semblance of dimension. If we were to ultimately believe his insecurities, we had to see him as a person.
Finally, the romance between Sam and Hannah is is not at all convincing. The way material likes to remind us they are a couple is showing a sloppy make-out session. It’s supposed to be funny. Why not just allow us to continually observe the sexual tension between Sam and Eddie grow until it is unbearable?
It is a shame that the writing is so bland and unfocused because Rockwell and Zahn seem willing to go to the extremes. For all the risks that “Safe Men” appears to take on the surface, what results is still a flavorless concoction of inanities.