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City's the loser in low gross-out comedy

Saturday, May 13, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Well, at least they changed the title.


Rating: PG-13 for crude and sex-related humor, nudity, language, some violence and brief drug content.

Starring: Norm Macdonald, Dave Chappelle, Danny DeVito.

Directors: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Web site:

Critic's call: 1 1/2 stars


"Screwed" was originally known as "Pittsburgh," which is where this gross-out comedy takes place. The city shield is accurate. So is the WPGH-TV logo. And, yes, that is a Post-Gazette newspaper box getting battered in a car chase.

But the filmmakers shot the movie in Vancouver, giving due mention to the money-saving British Columbia Production Services Tax Credit (take THAT, Dawn Keezer!).

And that's just the first insult to our fair municipality. The movie features so many grungy locations that it could be a promotional ad for the Fifth and Forbes project. Thanks, we needed that.

And then there's the film itself, which never aspired to be smart but might have had a chance for ingenious. Or maybe not. The screenplay sat for five years until Norm Macdonald agreed to do it. When Macdonald is the best you can do, God is surely trying to tell you something -- and it isn't that you should cast Dave Chappelle as Macdonald's sidekick.

OK, I understand that their characters are not rocket scientists and cannot be if the movie has any chance to work. Macdonald plays Willard Fillmore (the movie's idea of wit is to use names with presidential connotations), apparently the one and only servant of the rich bakery magnate Virginia Crock (Elaine Stritch). I can't say she treats him like a dog because her pooch, Muffin, fares much better than the overworked, underappreciated Willard.

Why doesn't he just quit? I told you he had to be stupid. Commiserating with his pal Rusty P. Hayes (Chappelle), who owns an eatery called the Chicken Hole, they hatch a plan to kidnap the mutt and ransom him for a million dollars.

But they can't do anything right. Muffin escapes before they realize it and returns home. So when Mrs. Crock finds the ransom note, she thinks Willard has been kidnapped. That's a relief -- she doesn't feel the need to pay THAT ransom.

But what a tangled web we weave when first we screw up royal. One mistake leads to another, and there's a certain demented logic to the plotting as our heroes just keep digging themselves a bigger hole, dragging others in with them.

Danny DeVito, wearing a very black mustache and beard and wisps of hair that look like soot falling across his forehead, plays a ghoulish morgue employee who gets sucked into the scheme. His appearance takes some getting used to, especially considering all the corpse jokes in his opening scene, but his skill at comic perversity eventually draws a few chuckles.

Stritch, the Broadway stage veteran, brings Miss Crock to life with sass and vinegar. Kidnapping her, as Willard and Rusty briefly considered, would be like trying to ransom Red Chief. She's a nasty old bat, but her single-minded ruthlessness and unwillingness to take any flak from anyone is almost admirable in a capitalist sort of way. Daniel Benzali and Sherman Hemsley are good in key supporting roles.

But when Hemsley comes off as restrained, you know someone else is overdoing it. Writer-directors Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski say they wanted to re-create the anarchic comedies of the '30s and '40s, citing in particular the work of W.C. Fields -- an ordinary guy getting into trouble.

Yeah, but Fields hit back. He was irreverent, sarcastic, scheming, often incompetent, but he was seldom lamebrained. Macdonald and Chappelle bring nothing to the table but fast talk, dim wits and the ability to yell a lot when things go wrong. A pair of skillful physical comedians might not have made this a good movie, but it might have been at least tolerable.

The names Alexander and Karaszewski may sound familiar. They wrote the screenplays for a trio of acclaimed biopics -- "Ed Wood," "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon," each of which contained comic elements on a somewhat higher plane. Here, it's a matter of how low can you go.

Hey, and next time, guys, pick on Buffalo.

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