89 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, August 7, 1998

Written & directed by John Hamburg

Starring Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Paul Giamatti, Michael Lerner, Christina Kirk, Mark Ruffalo & Harvey Fierstein


The preponderance of near-laughs will probably come across even more flat on video.

Coen-style caper comedy has hit-and-miss plot and humor

Writer-director John Hamburg's crime comedy "Safe Men" feels uncomfortably familiar. Like waking up in your own bed, but in someone else's house.

This may be because Hamburg's gimmicky script about two failed musicians mistaken for notorious safe-crackers has lifted most of its storytelling accouterments from the current caper movie kings -- the Coen Brothers.

The movie follows the misadventures of Sam and Eddie (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn), a pair of acutely untalented, wannabe synth-pop stars who accidentally become indebted to Providence, Rhode Island's only Jewish mafia don, Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner).

To prevent being fitted for cement overshoes, the pair doofus through a few breaking-and-entering jobs that don't net them any safes or money, but do get Sam a hot date with the daughter of Bernie's rival, who catches them casing her father's office.

Compound coincidental complications arise, not the least of which is that the girl's heart-broken ex-boyfriend happens to be one of the real safe men that Bernie thought he was hiring in the first place.

An air of undetonated wackiness stems from the movie's hit-and-miss deadpan humor as it apes the absurdist Coen's style with a multitude of ironically hapless, insecure criminals and a string of sitcom twists that take Sam and Eddie through Providence's near-slapstick underworld, including oddities like a hockey-themed mob Bar Mitzvah.

While there are ample laughs in "Safe Men," there are at least as many holes. Our heroes never wonder how they were pegged as safe crackers and don't try to remedy the situation despite the many times they bungle a break-in. The fact that they're musicians is merely a plot devise and is never visited again after the first reel. And while Sam seems to be a very dim bulb on the screen, he is inexplicably articulate and lucid as the narrator.

Rockwell ("Lawn Dogs," "Box of Moonlight") and Zahn ("Out of Sight," That Thing You Do!") make a fine pair of bumblers who take themselves all too seriously, and Paul Giamatti (The Negotiator," "Private Parts") steals every scene he's in as Bernie's ineffective right hand.

But "Safe Men" builds like one of those long jokes that turns out to be a groaner. It ends without much of a punch line, leaving one to wonder who didn't get it, the audience or the filmmakers.

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