Just as surely as Robin Williams has played enough poignantly daffy man-child types and Meg Ryan has satisfied her quota of spunky, slightly uptight girl-next-door parts, Hugh Grant has now cornered the cinematic market on bumbling Brits. From "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Nine Months" right up to last spring's "Notting Hill," Grant is the actor most comfortable in roles that require him to look eminently uncomfortable. The problem is, even an affable boob wears out his welcome eventually.
In better films like "Four Weddings," Grant's unique talent for stammering and shuffling had a certain fresh charm, and the material itself was clever enough that the whole thing didn't have to rest solely on his hunched shoulders. But in "Mickey Blue Eyes," an uninspired, recycled Mafia gags caper, Grant's now well-worn shtick and the weakness of the material create a negative symbiotic relationship, each serving to painfully highlight the shortcomings of the other.
Grant plays Michael Felgate, an impulsive, romantic, incredibly clumsy auction house manager who falls for Gina (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a New York school teacher who's mysteriously tight-lipped about her family. The fact that her family is really the Family -- featuring a tough-guy father (James Caan) and a pack of mumbling bruisers with names like Vinny, Carmine and Louie -- may have something to do with her reticence. And since Michael's profound nerdiness is obvious from the moment he disastrously botches a marriage proposal, we can hardly blame Gina for not wanting her beloved to get too close to her dad's bullets-and-dead-bodies crowd. When Michael eventually stumbles onto the truth, Gina makes him swear not to enmesh himself in his future father-in-law's dirty, dangerous business. But faster than you can say "goombah," the hapless bloke is laundering money and taking late-night trips to the boroughs to dig shallow graves. As he ping-pongs between his girlfriend, the goodfellas and some very curious agents from the FBI with what the filmmakers must have mistaken for comedy, Grant lays on the flustered, fish out of water act with increasingly jittery intensity. By the time we reach the farcical -- and utterly implausible -- climax, Grant appears to be mere moments away from the world's first authentic case of cinematic spontaneous combustion. The effect is supposed to be hilarious, but instead induces anxious perspiring: Watching Grant nearly have a heart attack is enough to make the viewer nearly have a heart attack.
The legit-world-meets-the-mob tale got an unexpected shot in the arm this year with the successes of "Analyze This" and "The Sopranos," proving that it's still possible to wring new life out of an old genre. But the big difference between those stories and "Mickey Blue Eyes" lies in their characters' adventurous appeal. Billy Crystal's twitchy shrink, like Grant's auctioneer, is equal parts pissed off exasperation and cowering terror, but unlike Grant, he discovers an unknown and exhilarating side of himself when he poses briefly as a mobster. And both Robert De Niro's and James Gandolfini's murderous capos reveal themselves, surprisingly, to be likable neurotics with deep-seated parental issues. By contrast, not Grant, not Caan, not anybody in "Mickey Blue Eyes" has anything hidden up his sleeve. Instead, they start out as clichis and remain so -- the stuffy Brit with impossibly floppy hair and the fughedaboudit, do-anything-for-his-princess wiseguy dad.
Instead of exploring any new "when worlds collide" possibilities, "Mickey Blue Eyes" settles itself into the superficial, jokey realm of complicated misunderstandings that even "Three's Company" in its heyday would have been embarrassed by. From its haven't-we-seen-this-somewhere-before? opening view of the Manhattan skyline accompanied by an old love song to its closing view of the Manhattan skyline accompanied by an old love song, every element of the film feels like little more than lazily constructed set-up. When a character declares pompously that his business embodies class, or when another warns that a squeeze could accidentally set off a hidden device, why bother laughing at what comes next? We already know that someone's going to open a door on someone with his pants down, or someone is going to dramatically slap himself in the wrong place. And do we really need to convey that this is the mob we're talking about here by cuing up the Dean Martin music? Between its prissy British characters (Michael's boss is even stodgier than he is), its hot-headed Eye-talians and its inept, English-mangling Chinese, "Mickey Blue Eyes" manages to be so stereotype-riddled it could make even Spike Lee roll his eyes in disbelief.
If there's any redemption to be found in the film, it's in the minor, blink-and-you-miss-them elements on the side. Scott Thompson does a witty, all too brief turn as a flamboyant FBI man, and there are some neat throwaway gags about oddly shaped funeral floral arrangements and talking gorilla dolls who brag of their opposable thumbs. In a better film, these are the kinds of things you might not even notice on the first viewing. Here, they're tiny morsels of comic sustenance on a very big, otherwise empty plate.
Caan has enough credibility that he can be excused the occasional lapse, and Tripplehorn may one day be grateful she's such a nonentity here that no one will ever remember she was even in the movie. But it's Grant who emerges from "Mickey Blue Eyes" in the most worrisome position. One need only look at his work in smaller films like "Maurice" and "An Awfully Big Adventure" to recognize that he's capable of subtler, more nuanced work. But how much more tempting must it be to simply furrow his brow and stammer -- especially in light of how successful the routine proved for "Notting Hill"? But a pigeonhole, however luxurious one can afford to make it, is still just a pigeonhole. Grant may find one day that same brand of bluster that first made him a sex symbol is typecasting him straight into nothing but "incompetent Anglo" roles. There are probably worse things he could do than continue to play them, but it's becoming infinitely less enjoyable to watch him do so.