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. "Who Is Cletis Tout"

There's room in the world of movies for the experimental, the off beat, the venture into styles on the edge. Hence we have "The Royal Tenenbaums", "Waking Life", "Memento". These are not just low-budget films, but expressions of an unusual take on presenting a story on film. Into this company, after some time on the shelf seeking a domestic release, we now have "Who Is Cletis Tout."

As the title intimates, this is a story about mistaken identity. In this case, it's on purpose since escaped convict Trevor Allen Finch (Christian Slater) was concealing his identity behind a dead man's profile. As terrible luck would have it for this essentially nice guy/petty criminal, the dead man is the object of a contract killing.

And who is the hit man but Critical Jim (Tim Allen), a killer by day, a film fanatic by day and night. In everything, he sees a scenario, searching for the one that'll make a producer out of him. And, he's a pretty smart guy because he gets it that Finch is no more his mark, Tout, than he's a film star. So, he calls the mobster who hired him, and tells him to get down to the hotel room in which he's holding Finch, to make the ID of him as Tout, or to cancel the contract. Either way is fine with Critical.

He gives him 90 minutes (not by accident the desirable length of a feature film -- this one's 92) and, whilst biding away the time, elicits Finch's story to see if it will play as a film. In fractured flashbacks mingling with the story pitch, we learn how Finch joined magician-jewel thief-cellmate Micah Donnelly (Richard Dreyfuss) in a magic-inspired escape, how he met Donnelly's gorgeous daughter Tess (the irresistible Portia de Rossi); how Donnelly met his end; and how he, Finch, became involved --with Tess-- in the hunt for the jewel cache that Dad hid 20 years ago in a field, under a tree, in a box that has fond, irreplaceable memories for daughter Tess.

Homing pigeons play a role in this; romance does, as well. And we are treated to a singular bit of story telling that, somehow, makes sense and provides interesting casting. But, you'd never know this if you fail to enter this unique world created by writer- director Chris Ver Wiel ("Blink of an Eye", "Waiting Game"). It's clever and amusing in an entirely unpredictable way, including the non-linear construction.

Notable is Tim Allen who seems to have found his metier as the movie-obsessed hit man quoting lines from film classics for every occasion to express his cynicism about modern films. Slater is nicely laid back, comfortable in his shoes and self-deprecatingly confident. De Rossi here is as sprightly as she is seductive, but in an entirely wholesome way. We sense that the natural allure of this angelically tressed actress is just waiting for the right role to propel her career into the higher stratosphere of recognition. She can give Cameron Diaz a run for her extraordinary looks.

And, while there are other fascinating parts and portrayals here, a standout is Billy Connolly as the free-wheeling Scotsman, Dr. Savian, a coroner whose audacious spirit deliciously conceals a system of corruption.

The film is just waiting for the fans of "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Empty Barrels", but it owes most of all to "Big Deal on Madonna Street" which set the standard for the genre way back in 1958.

Director Ver Wiel puts himself on the "pay-attention" map with this crisply contemporary and contentious heist-with-romance semi-screwball comedy. Who could down it for its way of balancing such seemingly-disparate elements with so much fun? This is a film that creates an effect of inventing itself as it goes along and you have to be forgiving of the occasional misfit along the way. The lighthearted take on movie making should be enough to make it a pleasant enough task.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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