Filmed as PAYDIRT, this lackluster suburban sitcom has the constrained feel of a filmed stage play, like a second-rate farce barely worth summer-stock revival. Willis Embry (Jeff Daniels), a do-gooder prison psychiatrist at a New Jersey pen, hears the confession of a dying lifer: $8.5 million of untraceable mafia money lies buried beneath the foundation...read more
Filmed as PAYDIRT, this lackluster suburban sitcom has the constrained feel of a filmed stage play, like a second-rate farce barely worth summer-stock revival.
Willis Embry (Jeff Daniels), a do-gooder prison psychiatrist at a New Jersey pen, hears the confession of a dying lifer: $8.5 million of untraceable mafia money lies buried beneath the foundation of a certain Cherry Hill home on a quiet residential street. Embry writes down the address, but some
of his other patients--inmates in the adjacent cell--are eavesdropping. Later, they break out of the joint and head for Cherry Hill, but not before bombing Embry's apartment to ensure there's no competition.
But instead of the treasure-site the criminals mistakenly invade the house next door, the middle-class palace of dull businessman Norm Rutledge (Hector Elizondo) and his thoroughly-domesticated wife Peedi (Judith Ivey). The thugs hold the cowed couple hostage while they dig up the basement
floor. Meanwhile, Embry--who has miraculously escaped the explosion, though he lets everyone believe he perished--targets the right home, whose sole occupant, Jessie Lodge (Catherine O'Hara), is a high-strung woman in the midst of a bitter divorce. He wins her trust and she joins the digging.
The escaped convicts spot Embry and realize their error. Once mousey Norm hears that a buried fortune is at hand, the cringing captive turns commando, revealing a hidden private arsenal of survivalist supplies and weapons, and claiming to have international underworld ties--a revelation to
neglected spouse Peedi. With Norm in charge, the marauders attack Jessie's place, but she and Embry hold them off with her ex-husband's crossbow.
Watching the action are neighborhood busybodies, Lydia and Jeffrey (Rhea Perlman and Dabney Coleman), self-help authors who spy on everyone through binoculars and misinterpret everything they see. Their savvy kid Swan (Heidi Zeigler) figures out what's going on and phones the cops, after first
haggling over a reward. In the end, every man in Cherry Hill is under arrest, and Embry unearths the suitcase, only to discover the cash rotted away. After everybody departs, though, he and Jessie stumble upon the rest of the cache: gold coins.
It would have taken a filmmaker with the sardonic outlook of a Paul Bartel (EATING RAOUL) to make this celebration of greed properly, entertainingly caustic. Instead writer-director Bill Phillips goes for a bland brand of kookiness better suited to a Doris Day diversion or a lesser Disney romp.
One knows intuitively that despite all the threats of death and menace, nobody's going to get hurt, no character's even going to learn anything from the experience, and Jessie will fall for Embry and they'll run off together with their prize at the end. The sole casualty--Chazz Palminteri,
actor-playwright whose acclaimed "A Bronx Tale" was adapted for the screen by Robert DeNiro in 1993--takes a slapstick arrow in the butt.
The cast is filled with familiar comedy pros going through their lukewarm shtick. Harris Yulin's mumbling-Godfather bit as the criminal ringleader quickly wears thin, and Jeff Daniels' featherweight lead role lacks definition. Is Embry driven by lust for that $8.5 million, or is he genuinely
eager to grant a prison chum's last wish, to give half the money to a pen pal? The screenplay would suggest the latter, if anything; that's how toothless the tale is. The summit of subversion is the subplot about dysfunctional pop-psych gurus Lydia and Jeffrey (who send Swan forth at every
opportunity with the command "Excel!"), and the nadir is a dim bit of business about sexual addiction. Production values are okay, with impressive mayhem when the emboldened Norm tries to tunnel through to Jessie's, only to rupture her swimming pool instead, wreaking a watery apocalypse in the
climax. (Violence, profanity.)
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