These low-rent types keep planning initiatives – legal and illegal – to shake themselves loose from their rut, and then trip over themselves when they try to carry them out. They’re the sad-sack descendants of the characters Paddy Chayefsky used to write in the fifties. But unlike Chayefsky, the screenwriter, David Epstein (who was inspired by some stories by Italo Calvino), has a gift for dialogue. He’s also got an idiosyncratic sense of humor: the jokes are like trick pool shots that ricochet off three sides before pinging the ball into the pocket. In the film’s opening sequence, the guys try to knock off a jewelry store but since Jerry, the layout man, screwed up the geography, they end up in the adjacent bakery instead. (Epstein reworks the botched robbery sequence that climaxes the classic Italian heist farce, Big Deal on Madonna Street, but here it’s just the intro.) When the cops arrive, Jerry’s hiding behind the pastry tray, with telltale dabs of powdered sugar all over his face. (He and one of the cops reach for the same brownie.) Jerry escapes detection, but Ed, one of the officers on the scene, is sure he knows who’s responsible. His hands are tied, though, because later on that evening he drops by to visit the local whore (Frances McDormand, in a lovely cameo) and Russell, who’s a pal of hers, is sitting around her apartment shooting the breeze. Russell and Ed – Russell’s “cop-in-law,” as Laurie calls him disdainfully – are in a comic stalemate.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.