Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Actress Alicia Silverstone’s latest starring vehicle “Excess Baggage” (** OUT OF ****) opens amid a frenzy of activity like an inspired screwball comedy. Midway through the movie director Marco Brambilla and his scribes flagrantly shift gears from a sparkling comedy to a tedious kidnapping drama about an unhappy heiress and a woebegone car thief. Fans of the “Clueless” starlet may find “Excess Baggage” a puzzling departure for Silverstone who wielded ultimate creative authority over both script and casting. Perhaps she is more to blame for the muddled quality of “Excess Baggage” than either Brambilla or the writers. Never as entertaining as “Clueless” but better than “Batman & Robin,” “Excess Baggage" arrives as something of a letdown after Silverstone’s long screen absence.

Cast as Emily T. Hope, the moody daughter of a man richer than Donald Trump, Silverstone constantly struggles to elicit her icy hearted, corporate father’s affections. Australian actor Jack (“‘Breaker’ Morant”) Thompson plays the father who has grown weary of his daughter’s outlandish schemes to attract his attention. When he sent her away to a boarding school, Emily torched the place. As “Excess Baggage” unfolds, she has convinced not only her father but also the FBI that kidnappers are holding her for a million dollar ransom. Lamely, Emily hopes that her rescue from her bogus kidnappers will rekindle her papa’s love. So she gags, tapes and cuffs herself before she jumps into the trunk (not a stunt you should try) of her BMW.

Just as it looks as if everything is going Emily’s way, a car thief spots her Beamer in a parking garage and steals it as she lies helpless in the trunk. No sooner does Vincent (Benicio Del Toro) wheel his latest trophy onto the street than a swarm of police cars descends on him. A tire-screeching chase ensues, and Vincent manages to shake his pursuers. He pulls into a nondescript warehouse that conceals his stolen vehicles. Vincent is an expert car thief who boosts expensive sports cars. When he puts the car on the rack, he notices that it wobbles. Imagine his shock when he finds a babe chick inside bound and gagged. Vincent slams the trunk! Since he cannot think of anything else, he calls his partner-in-crime Greg (Harry Connick, Jr), a car salesman. So far the story has a little in common with the Elizabeth Shue comedy “Adventures in Babysitting.”

Meanwhile, Emily’s suspicious father calls in his right hand man, Uncle Ray (Christopher Walken) to find his daughter. After Emily breaks out of the car, she calls pop, but hangs up when Vincent returns. Eventually, Vincent decides to leave her on foot far out in the forest. That’s when he discovers her identity and that his car warehouse stands in a pile of smoking ashes. Now, the guys who paid Vincent to steal the cars (Nicholas Turturro & Michael Bowen) want their $200-thousand dollars back. Spotting Emily, they pull guns on Vincent and take Emily hostage with a million dollar ransom demand. It seems that “Excess Baggage” is a series of kidnappings and abductions.

The inventive but offbeat script hangs together by the most improbable threads. Of course, that’s the nature of Hollywood movies. The more unlikely the circumstances are, the more colossal the dramatic outcome appears. Anyway, whoever thought to demand realism out of an Alicia Silverstone comedy? Suddenly, “Excess Baggage” wanders off on other subplots that distract from Vincent and Emily. Not only that but the story slows down and a pall hovers over the characters. Realism tries to intrude on an Alicia Silverstone movie. Oh, no, not another Silverstone turkey like “The Crush!”

Screwball comedy dictates that Vincent heists the same car that Emily uses to stash her body. A smoldering cigarette that she tosses into a rag bin later engulfs Vincent’s neat hideout in flames. Neither Vincent nor Emily appreciate their predicament. Just when Vincent rids himself of Emily, he needs her and she needs him. Later, when Ray captures Vincent and confiscates his money, Emily comes to his rescue. Less than amused, the gruff Ray explains to Emily that she has committed a serious crime. They need to use Vincent as the fall guy to take her place.

“Clueless” it ain’t. Director Marco Brambilla, whose only previous directing credit is Sly Stallone’s “Demolition Man,” whips these disparate elements together with such verve and style until Emily and Vincent team up. The action stalls out along with the humor and movie goes in search of a genre. Is this still a comedy? Or is it a social problem film? About the same time that the story loses its momentum, we learn what an insensitive brute her father truly is. Jack Thompson’s stuck-up dad feels absolutely no sympathy for his daughter and finds a business appointment infinitely preferable to her attentions.

Writer Max D. Adams and comedy veterans Dick Clement and Ian Frenais fumble in their efforts to maintain a consistent feeling and atmosphere in the story. After Emily and Vincent fall for each other, Alicia Silverstone’s character spends several scenes off-camera. We get to follow the misadventures of poor Vincent who gets kidnapped not only by Ray but his criminal cronies. The focus shifts from the burgeoning relationship between Emily and Vincent and settles on the mechanics of a crime thriller. There’s even a shoot-out at the end, and Alicia drives a forklift with the front end of a car on it through a wall. The filmmakers clearly lose interest in their characters when they let the leads take a back seat to the crazy twists and turns of the plot. But the ending isn’t so neat. Emily’s father couldn’t care two bits for his daughter and wings it off to a business conference.

If anybody holds this uneven caper together it’s star and producer Alicia Silverstone. Although she is looking a little fleshy around the curves, Silverstone’s china-doll eyes and her crooked smile are all the charisma this movie should have needed. The amazing thing is that Silverstone allows her character to be shuttled off-camera, something that rarely happened in “Clueless.” Successful starlets on the rise in Hollywood usually hog the camera lens, but Silverstone doesn’t mind letting her co-stars carry entire scenes without her. As a motherless daughter, Emily enlists our sympathy. She’s a poor misguided girl, but at the same time a rather smart cookie with a black belt in karate. Silverstone brings his gorgeous physical presence to bear in the role without shedding her clothes. In fact, you can count her wardrobe changes on one hand and have leftover fingers.

Silverstone’s scenes with co-star Benicio Del Toro are the best thing about “Excess Baggage.” The wiry Del Toro creates a character so much Emily’s opposite that you know they will hook up. A gifted actor in his own right, Benicio Del Toro got his start as a Bond villain in 1989’s “License to Kill” and played one of Robert De Niro’s victims in “The Fan.” Del Toro never gives the same performance twice. He speaks with a raspy voice here and varies the pulse of his performance from his co-star. The comedy and chemistry that develop between them is so dry that it radiates humor. In one scene, while she yammers away at him, he observes that he once stole a car with a puppy in the back seat that made less noise.

Christopher Walken is cast as Emily’s lethal Uncle Ray. Walken’s performance brims with uncertainty. Like he needed the director to remind him how villainous he was allowed to be. For a while, the writers act like they aren’t sure whose side Ray in on in the story.

If you like Alicia Silverstone, you’ll probably buy “Excess Baggage” not matter how flakey its premise, execution, and outcome is.

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