We gave it a C+
In snob culture’s pecking order, serious is better than funny, stage surpasses screen, and thematic significance is paramount. So what are two of America’s top dramatic actors, a serious playwright, and a hard-boiled British director doing in We’re No Angels, a meaningless stab at film comedy? Failing badly, that’s what.
Robert De Niro and Sean Penn aren’t total newcomers to humor. De Niro traded insults competently with Charles Grodin in Midnight Run; Penn, as a spaced-out surfer, nearly walked away with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But Abbott and Costello they’re not. Playing escaped convicts mistaken for scholarly priests visiting a remote shrine, the two actors — like their characters — ignore the odds and gamely attempt to make the best of unusual circumstances. But sincere effort isn’t enough, and for the entire film (loosely based on a 1955 Humphrey Bogart picture) they do little more than exchange sheepish looks. Lacking adequate instincts and material, they ham and haw their way through awkward pauses, improvising religious rites and worming out of various tight fixes. Director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa) seems lost, except during the mildly violent action sequences.
Able members of the fine supporting cast — Demi Moore as an anticlerical prostitute, Bruno Kirby as a sinful lawman, and Wallace Shawn as an ecumenical toady — root out bits of humor, but pickings are slim. Attempting to craft a simple, friendly situation comedy, writer David Mamet (The Untouchables) got the situations down and injected some warmth, but sorely neglected the comedy. Amid the TV-style charades, impromptu fibs, and stymied escapes, the only thing missing is Lucille Ball.
To its credit, besides the talent involved, We’re No Angels is a visually striking period piece. The scenery, costumes, and exceptionally fine cinematography evoke the harshness of 1935 life in a small town on the Canadian border. On video, however, the murky, cropped transfer only dimly suggests its painterly elegance.