”The Whole Nine Yards” is a convoluted ”dweeb meets the Mob” farce in which everyone is trying to kill everyone else, but it’s the movie that’s the real corpse — albeit a busy, twitching one. The more frenzied the action gets, the duller the film becomes, and that’s because the plastic tangle of schemes, vendettas, and double- and triple-crosses never emerges from anything recognizably human. The characters are hollow cartoon vessels. Everything they do, even on the picture’s own black-comedy terms, appears motivated solely by the need to twist the plot into increasingly far-fetched contortions.
Early on, Matthew Perry, as a nervous dentist, gets sucked into a plan to rat out the famous hitman (Bruce Willis) who has just moved into his neighborhood. Ensconced in a hotel room, Perry receives a knock on the door, and there, in all her babelicious splendor, is the hitman’s estranged wife (Natasha Henstridge), who immediately comes on to him, explaining that she hasn’t had sex in five years. I assumed, for a moment, that I was watching a cliché dream sequence. Why? Because Henstridge is gorgeous and Perry is starting to look like a modern descendent of Barney Rubble? Well, yes, but also because the movie has gone to such elaborate lengths to establish its hero as a clueless, fumbling loser. Even if a gangster’s wife did decide to pick a lover based on his ”inner self,” she would hardly go for this guy.
The movie’s hyper-obvious nutcake characters include Rosanna Arquette as Perry’s treacherous oo-la-la French Canadian wife, Kevin Pollak as a Hungarian gangster who speaks with Funny Accent, and Amanda Peet as a vivacious dental assistant who is also an aspiring hitwoman. As Willis’ old comrade in crime, bald, gigantoid Michael Clarke Duncan, sporting a Mr. Clean earring, gets to loosen up and show a bit more personality than he did as the simpleton savior of ”The Green Mile.” He turns out to be as fast and light-fingered as he is large of scale.
Willis gives what I would call one of his Planet Hollywood performances. The restaurant chain may be failing, but in ”The Whole Nine Yards,” his very presence, with its checklist of have-it-your-way Bruceisms (Jockish swagger? Check. Love-me smirk? Check. Subtle flattop toupee? Check), is little more than franchise enhancement. That could be a savvy career move, or it may just be the sign of a terrific actor who’d rather serve himself up as a hamburger than haute cuisine.