Miami Blues is a bonafide oddball, a garishly eccentric cat-and-mouse thriller produced (though not, alas, directed) by Jonathan Demme. Based on a novel in a popular crime series by the late Charles Willeford, it features Fred Ward as the shabby toothless police detective Hoke Moseley, who’s constantly pulling out his choppers for no apparent reason but to make the audience go, ”Gross!” Hoke is supposed to be the hero, yet he’s barely in the movie. The central attraction is a scenery-chewing Alec Baldwin in the role of Junior, a cheerfully unhinged ex-con who’s a pathological liar, pathological thief, pathological killer. . .in short, Alec Baldwin’s attempt to be something other than the boy next door.

Fresh off the plane from San Quentin, Junior is both savvy and reckless. He’s a wizard at forging credit-card signatures, but when a Hare Krishna tries to waylay him in the Miami airport, he casually breaks the guy’s finger, and the Krishna diis of shock.

This comic murder — death by finger-snapping — immediately establishes where the movie is coming from. Namely, Mars.

Junior connects with a friendly, lackadaisical Southern prostitute named Pepper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who dreams of becoming a housewife. Since Junior entertains some rather pristine middle-class fantasies himself, they’re a perfect match: a coupleof space cadets living a gonzo parody of the American Dream.

They set up house, but Junior insists on earning his living via crime. First, he comes on as a kind of misguided Robin Hood, stealing from other crooks but keeping the booty himself. (It’s amusing to watch him snatch a purse from a purse-snatcher.) Then, having pinched Moseley’s badge, he imagines himself a police officer and starts engineering ”explosive” fake busts. This produces the movie’s few giddy comic highs — for, of course, like most people who fantasize about becoming a cop, Junior really wants to be a television cop. The other notable thing about him is that he’s so demented he feels no pain. This becomes graphically clear in the movie’s climactic sequence, which involves a very sharp knife and oh, well, I won’t ruin the surprise for you.

As Miami Blues goes on, it becomes apparent that nothing in the movie makes much sense. The plot is all chaos and happenstance — starting with the scene in which Moseley comes over to Pepper’s to investigate the Krishna murder, finds Junior there, stays to have some pork chops, and then leaves. Is he trying to gather information or was he just interested in a good dinner? We haven’t a clue.

What really sinks the movie, though, is Alec Baldwin’s strenuously awful performance. In The Hunt for Red October, Baldwin proves he’s one of the few current actors who can make a straight-arrow agnetic. As the not-so-nice Junior, he seethes and sweats and emotes all over the place. He’s like Judd Nelson impersonating Robert De Niro — he does a portrait of the psycho as acting-class creep. By the time Miami Blues winds into its crushingly bloody, absurdist finale, the only question of any urgency is, Which actor has become harder to watch: Baldwin with his histrionics or Fred Ward flashing those naked gums?

Miami Blues
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