THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE MAN"

In The Man, Eugene Levy plays Andy Fidler, a dental supply salesman from Wisconsin. He travels to Detroit for a big convention, where he is to deliver the keynote speech. After wandering into a diner to grab some coffee and a newspaper, Andy is approached by a stranger who hands him a brown paper bag. Inside are a cell phone and a gun. It turns out that he has been mistaken for Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson), an undercover ATF agent who was trying to set up a sting operation to nab the gun dealer who murdered his partner.

Because that dealer mistakenly believes that Andy is in the market to buy thousands of dollars in stolen guns, Vann needs him to continue the charade. The problem is that Andy is an uptight, nervous sort who doesn’t seem at all credible in the role of criminal. He has a penchant for saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, which proves infuriating for the intense Vann. The two bicker, almost continually, about everything. Under the guidance of the ATF agent, Andy sets up a meeting to exchange the cash for the weapons, at which time Vann can make his bust. As is often the case in these comedies, things don’t initially go according to plan. Meanwhile, an internal affairs agent (Miguel Ferrer) is monitoring Vann, under the assumption that he might, in fact, be a dirty cop on the take.

Mismatched buddies have long been a staple of movie action-comedies, from Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, to Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. I could go on and on. The Man does nothing to change the formula. It does, however, do the formula pretty well. I like Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy individually, so seeing them together is good for some laughs, especially since both are happily playing to type. Jackson exudes his trademark don’t-mess-with-me cool (with a slightly exaggerated sense of anger thrown in), while Levy plays the hapless nerd to the hilt. The film’s humor rarely rises above the level of fart jokes – of which there are plenty – but there’s something amusing about seeing Jackson and Levy doing fart jokes and committing to them so fully. I also laughed at a scene in which Andy tries to pass Vann off to the gun dealer as his “bitch.” The actors hit all the right notes: Levy sounds ridiculous trying to use street slang, and Jackson humorously projects his character’s embarrassment of being referred to in such a degrading manner.

The Man gets a fair amount of comic mileage from the two leads, but the rest of the picture doesn’t quite measure up. It’s basically a movie with a premise rather than a plot: the clueless dental supply salesman has to pretend to be an arms dealer. It really doesn’t go any further than that premise. I was reminded of the classic 1979 comedy The In-Laws where a neurotic dentist (played by Alan Arkin) was drawn into international intrigue by Peter Falk’s screwy CIA agent. That movie built on its premise, leading to a conclusion that was comically over the top, yet still brought closure to the character and story arcs. In other words, it hit a home run, whereas The Man stalls at second base. It feels like the screenplay had all the jokes in place but little of the structure needed to fully engage us.

What might have improved it? Well, for starters, it would have helped if we felt that Andy was physically in danger. Weird as it may sound, danger can be great for comedy. (Again, witness Alan Arkin obsessing over the prospect that he might be killed in The In-Laws.) Instead of fearing harm, Andy more or less charms his way out of tough situations with his Midwestern sincerity. A stronger third act would have been nice too. Although The Man avoids one of those lame “we’ve been through so much that we’re buddies now” endings, there is no comic momentum to the grand finale. The final sting operation is over almost as quickly as it begins. I wanted to see Andy use some of his dental tools to fight the bad guys, or to have the conflict between he and Vann add some jeopardy to the situation. Instead, it just sort of fizzles out.

All in all, I got some entertainment value from the movie – due to the considerably wacky pairing of the two leads – but I’m not sure I’d tell anyone to run out and see The Man. I’ve never been a big proponent of the “wait for video” concept because I believe movies are best served in a theater; that said, this is exactly the kind of movie for which that concept was invented. The often-funny chemistry between Jackson and Levy makes it worth a look, but you’d probably be happier not paying full price.

( 1/2 out of four)


The Man is rated PG-13 for language, rude dialogue and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.

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