Trying to get jazzed up about the meant-to-be-naughty goings-on of "One Night at McCool's" is a little like trying to satisfy your hunger by looking at a picture of roast beef. It looks inviting but there's no flavor, no seasoning, no juice. Director Harald Zwart's feature debut is the type of picture where the "daring" has been carefully calculated -- the hottie heroine saying that "fucking" is her favorite thing, or donning bondage gear, or slipping her head below the frame in order to minister a consoling blow job. But there's a difference between trying to shock and possessing a truly dirty mind. There's never a moment where Zwart or screenwriter Stan Seidel seems to have surrendered to his unconscious, where you feel the thrill of a joke being pushed too far into smutty chaos.
Like a noir, "One Night at McCool's" is the story of men undone by a madonna/whore temptress. Matt Dillon plays a down-and-out bartender who rescues (or so he thinks) Liv Tyler's Jewel from her brutal boyfriend. Hours later he and Jewel have become lovers and the boyfriend is dead. The movie is told by the various men Jewel becomes involved with because of that incident -- Dillon's hotshot lawyer cousin (Paul Reiser), and the cop (John Goodman) investigating the death. She's driving them crazy with desire. The lawyer has wound up seeing a shrink (Reba McEntire), and the cop is unburdening himself to his priest (Richard Jenkins). Dillon consults the most extreme confessor, an aging greaser hit man (Michael Douglas) he's hired to get Jewel out of his life -- permanently.
But where noir asks you to put yourself in the position of the doltish men, Zwart and Seidel want you to have sympathy for the vixen. She's so much quicker and smarter and gutsier that it's not very hard. Especially with Liv Tyler in the role. Here she's ripe in a way that seems perpetually mussed from sleep. As Jewel, the woman whose desires men are so eager to fulfill, Tyler has been wittily costumed (by Ellen Mirojnick) in colorful summer dresses that are flowing and tight in just the right places. Mirojnick even makes a joke out of Tyler's dewiness, like a porn filmmaker working with an actress from a douche commercial. Zwart presents each male character's first view of Liv Tyler in gauzy slow motion. But she is desirable; she doesn't have to be made to look like it. For Tyler's part, she tries to play up the joke that the moviemakers don't: the contrast between Jewel's desire for domesticity and the criminal means she's entirely comfortable using to achieve it.
"One Night at McCool's" should have been a quick and dirty pulp tall tale. But it pokes along instead of accelerating, and though it isn't exactly smug it's rather too pleased with its own manufactured outrageousness. Neither Zwart nor Seidel can really enter into the lubricious, dirty-minded spirit the movie should have. And Zwart is so intent on working up a horny head of steam that the set pieces he stages -- Jewel nearly humping the hood of the car she's washing while water and suds stream down her -- are neither funny nor sexy.
None of the men who are entranced by her come off. Matt Dillon doesn't have much to do beyond a limply good-natured bumbling. The character of his lawyer cousin is so smarmy that Paul Reiser wipes out his usual schmucky appeal. John Goodman has a few tricks -- particularly the facial twitch that passes for a smile -- but there's very little of the charm he can give off. Michael Douglas looks terrific. He's got a paunch, an ugly Qiana shirt and a two-tone pompadour that looks as if a possum had curled up on his head and gone to sleep. He's the picture of every over-the-hill rock 'n' roller who refuses to give up the style he's had for years. There doesn't seem to be much of a role written for him beyond the look, though his underplaying is something of a relief.
The best work comes from three of the supporting players: Reba McEntire as Reiser's shrink, her professional demeanor constantly threatened by her obviously finding her patient a grade-A asshole; Richard Jenkins as Goodman's priest, who gets consistent laughs with nothing more than his seen-it-all deadpan; and Andrew "Dice" Clay (billed here under his real name of Andrew Silverstein), who's let down by the filmmakers in his final appearance but who, in his first scenes, as Jewel's ex-con boyfriend, a biker muscleman in studded leather, knows how to make a loudmouth tough guy funny without hogging the spotlight. But then I've never seen Clay not funny when he's taken on a character role. The movie goes completely haywire in the miscalculated blood-splattered finale, the logical extension of the movie's self-congratulatory wildness. The comic style (or what passes for it) of "One Night at McCool's" is a little like that pompadour on Douglas' hit man -- something it's time to grow up and put aside.