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Termagant of Endearment

Liv Tyler makes the boys go crazy in One Night at McCool's

Visualize a pretty young woman and a handsome young man heading for the bedroom. She has just suggested that she wants to show him what she really wants, so, naturally, he begins unzipping his trousers en route to the bed. Oblivious to his loud boxers, she sits and begins swooning over her motley scrapbook of home furnishings and décor that contains her dreams of material comfort. He doesn't get it, she doesn't get him, and pretty soon people will become terribly unpleasant and begin shooting at one another.

Like some errant black-sheep Coen brothers movie that slipped away in the night only to be shorn and butchered by neighboring filmmakers, One Night at McCool's is set in an obnoxious alter-America populated by obtuse caricatures. Although this production from Michael Douglas is being touted as a sexy romantic comedy, it's more precise to think of it as big loud fun for when you're feelin' dumb. It's slick and funny, but it's funny the way that vomiting is funny, the way that falling down stairs or having a seizure is funny. Laughter is inevitable, so long as one checks one's humanity at the door.

Taking its cues from the notion that a girl with great assets will turn men into asses, McCool's focuses on Milla Jovovich or Jennifer Love-Hewitt or Liv Tyler or one of those actresses, if you can tell the difference. Wait a minute ... OK, just checked -- it's definitely Tyler. So Tyler plays Jewel, an incarnation of erotic electricity who also happens to be a selfish, manipulative monster. (As with J.R.R. Tolkien's Arwen, whom she'll portray in The Lord of the Rings, she's a magical being here; she can go to the bathroom without making a sound.) The handsome young man in question is the aptly named Randy (Matt Dillon, daily drinker from the fountain of youth), a bartender at the titular blue-collar watering hole whose primary skills seem to be drinking from a plunger and ... well ... the obvious.

Det. Dehling (John Goodman), just another man turned into an ass by the sexy Jewel (Liv Tyler)
Det. Dehling (John Goodman), just another man turned into an ass by the sexy Jewel (Liv Tyler)

Amazingly unfazed that the men she scams tend to try to rape her, Jewel is rescued by Randy from her violent boyfriend, Utah (comedian Andrew "Dice" Clay, Silverstein, here ghastly and irascible). In her meticulously disheveled red velvet dress, she's sex on wheels and probably too much trouble for Randy, who opts to leave her behind (literally) in the parking lot of McCool's. She'll have none of that, however, and quickly integrates herself into his ratty old fixer-upper, left to him by his dear mother. Employing the lusty knave and his house as steppingstones toward realizing her dream of domestic bliss, the girl ruthlessly exploits her gifts to get what she wants.

"A woman after my own heart," concedes Mr. Burmeister (Douglas), a grizzled old salt in whom Randy confides. In a bad Midwestern shirt and Cro-Magnon hairpiece copied from the one Steve Van Zandt wears on The Sopranos, Douglas gives himself the vanity role in his vanity project, playing unctuous and crudely cool. Functioning as Randy's confidant in the awkward setting of a rural-Missouri bingo hall, Burmeister listens intently as the confused lad deems Jewel "not the kind of girl you run into in a dark alley." The more Burmeister listens, however, the more he realizes she's exactly that kind of girl, making his volatile role in the action all the more luridly attractive.

Although it waxes and wanes in its multiple perceptions, McCool's strives to be three stories in one as two other men lose their minds over Jewel, confiding their respective flashbacks to a therapist (Reba McEntire) and a priest (Richard Jenkins). Paul Reiser (who crassly suggests seeing the film three times to garner its producers 27 bucks) plays a sort of cousin to Randy, an upscale lawyer whose blasé suburban existence causes him to drool over Jewel at every opportunity. John Goodman, on the other hand, plays a cop who stakes out Jewel in Randy's house, collecting clues to the crimes she's catalyzing but also projecting all manner of virgin purity and feminine glory onto the undeserving shrew.

The reason McCool's works -- for all its implausibility and sub-Three Stooges humor -- is that these diverging perceptions were carefully interwoven by the late screenwriter Stan Seidel, to whom the film is dedicated. The characterizations are ugly, but Seidel's gift for grotesque exaggeration -- much like the Coens' -- hits America's neurotic bull's-eye. Whether it's Goodman's good man setting up foolproof rationalizations ("Why would God fill me with this desire if I wasn't meant to be with her?") or Reiser's lech justifying screwing his cousin's girl ("It's not like I never did anything for him!"), these are some fine warts on display.

And, yes, Tyler shakes her groove thing countless times to the desired effect, but this jiggling would all be for naught if a pro such as Goodman weren't there to suffer spasms of lust attended by guilt and denial, thereafter processing the whole mess into some deranged form of idolatry. Likewise, Reiser (who hasn't lost his knack for playing the weasel he perfected in Aliens) puts an entirely different spin on Jewel while seducing her, becoming her victim or both. Sorry, ladies: Goodman obviously added a no-nudity clause to his contract, but Reiser really wants us to behold him in S/M leather, if that's something that'll coax you into the theater.

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