Stark and beautiful Big Sky-country scenery, a hauntingly atmospheric soundtrack, some enjoyable acting and a goofballish, neo-noir sensibility -- "Clay Pigeons" may not actually be a good movie, but it has many of the ingredients of one. Bouncing all over the contemporary pop-cultural map from "Fargo" to "Silence of the Lambs" to "The Cable Guy" to, I don't know, "Blue Velvet," this directorial debut from David Dobkin (whose only previous credit is as co-writer of the 1995 horror comedy "Ice Cream Man") might seem like a heartless and snarky film-school in-joke if it ever took itself seriously. Instead, it's just a lark spiced up with gross-out jokes; as one friend of mine declared, it's a summer movie that leaked into fall. I hope it's not yet too cold for cherry Coke where you live.
Even co-star Janeane Garofalo -- who appears in yet another of her sexless career-girl roles -- has expressed some misgivings about this film's level of misogyny, and I certainly wouldn't blame anyone who believes there's no excuse for a comedy in which several women are murdered. But neither the dead characters nor the live ones in "Clay Pigeons" even remotely resemble real people. They're the overdrawn caricatures of the burlesque tradition, situated in a context '90s filmgoers can understand, and the violence they inflict and suffer bears the same relationship to our lives as the pummeling absorbed by the marionettes in a Punch-and-Judy show.
By far the biggest and most delightful of the dirigible-size characters floating above this movie's landscape is Lester Long (which may or may not be his real name), played by Vince Vaughn as a combination of Elvis Presley, Hannibal Lecter, a gay rodeo cowboy and that guy who really, really wanted to be your friend in seventh grade. Lester -- who introduces himself, with a little pelvic waggle, as "Lester the Molester" -- may be a little too cheerful, a little too immaculately shaved and possess a limitless wardrobe of preternaturally pristine Western wear, but he shows up in town just when Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) could really use a pal to keep his spirits up.
Here's what happens before the plot of "Clay Pigeons" really kicks in: Clay's previous best friend kills himself -- in circumstances that seem to implicate Clay -- after learning that Clay has been enjoying weekly liaisons with his wife, Amanda. Grief-stricken, Clay covers up the evidence that incriminates him, then spurns all of Amanda's further advances. Armed with press-on nails, false eyelashes and a perpetual halo of whiskey, nicotine and unsatisfiable lust, Georgina Cates' Amanda is an |ber-slut so ludicrous she transcends offensive stereotypes and becomes a veritable Xena of trashiness. Needless to say, she doesn't take rejection well. Amanda shoots Clay's new girlfriend (and destroys his waterbed) while they're having sex for the first time, then threatens to expose Clay's misdeeds if he calls the cops.
For all this frenzied activity, these early scenes offer approximately the same pleasures as, say, a well-photographed episode of "Silk Stalkings." Much of the problem is Phoenix, who skulks and mumbles his way through the proceedings to no discernible effect. We're never really sure if Clay is a shy, damaged child; a tormented soul battling his inner demons; or just a dimwit unable to grasp that his efforts to escape his dilemma are only digging him in deeper. My best guess is that Phoenix is attempting some minor-key James Dean method acting, but with Cates and Vaughn chewing the scenery like dueling Godzillas, this is no place for such subtleties.
Then Lester arrives out of nowhere, like mysterious drifters in dozens of previous films, and events acquire a deeper, weirder resonance. He attaches himself to Clay with inexorable force as unexplained corpses start popping up all over the desolate terrain. By the time Clay goes over to Amanda's house to find that Lester is already there (clad only in boxer briefs and a Stetson and protesting, "She isn't a bad piece of ass after all"), we understand that Clay's troubles are only beginning.
Like any great noir psycho villain, Lester is so bad he's irresistible, but perhaps only when Garofalo gets to town, as an FBI agent investigating Montana's epidemic of murdered women, does Vaughn really get to show his stuff. Garofalo's Agent Shelby, of course, is a quip-wielding, no-nonsense professional with just the faintest hint of hipster chick. After hours, she relaxes in Adidas sweat pants with a confiscated joint, a pizza and a borrowed tape of "Alien" (which turns out to feature a surprise appearance by Clay and Amanda).
Shelby is exasperated when Lester hits on her in the town's only bar, but like the rest of us, she can't quite resist this handsome, unsinkable buffoon with the aw-shucks demeanor and the outlandish cowboy costume. This scene -- really no more than a throwaway showcase for the two actors -- is so electric, so alive with possibility, that you become a little too conscious of how trivial "Clay Pigeons" is as a whole. I wanted to take these two characters somewhere else and make a real movie about them. And I wondered, for about the 50th time, why Garofalo, whose lovely, liquid eyes and enormous, almost salacious smile make her, for my money, one of the sexiest presences in contemporary film, seems doomed to a career of on-screen chastity.
"Clay Pigeons" plays itself out as a genial spoof of the police procedural, never coming close to those heights again. But Vaughn provides so many spooky, hilarious, unhinged moments, you won't mind sitting through it. When Clay laments the fact that he's being charged with murder, Lester scoffs, curling his lip into the King's distinctive sneer: "Just one count. Don't be such a fucking pussy all the time, OK?" After this role, "Return to Paradise" and "The Locusts," Vaughn is now officially in danger of Dennis Quaid syndrome -- that's where you start out with tremendous good looks and talent, never make a hit movie and end up playing someone's dad in a made-for-TNT special. But for now, he's an exceptional young actor willing to take strange chances; let's enjoy that while we can.