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Mousehunt

Director: Gore Verbinski / Writer: Adam Rifkin / DP: Phedon Papamichael / Editor: Craig Wood / Score: Alan Silvestri

Cast: Nathan Lane / Lee Evans / Vicki Lewis / Maury Chaykin / Eric Christmas / Christopher Walken / Michael Jeter /  William Hickey

Year: 1997

I saw a mouse. There. Well, I declare!


O
kay. Hand on heart, I laughed like the proverbial drain on at least three occasions whilst watching Mousehunt: Laurel and Hardy’s last classic – in COLOUR, no less!

Oh, wait. Who are these names on the poster? Nathan Lane? Lee Evans? So not the original pratfall tag-team, then?

In a nutshell? The Smuntz brothers inherit from recently deceased Smuntz Sr, a Heath-Robinsonesque factory that makes, err, string, along with half a box of Cuban cigars and a large house, that’s more ruin than house. After a string (pun intended) of bad luck, coupled with various displays of ineptitude, the Brothers Smuntz find themselves moving-in to the ruin / house, whereupon two key plot drivers swerve into view. First, they discover the house has a mouse… Second, that its architect was one ‘Charles Lyle LaRue’ who’s output is highly prized: turns out, that Pop’s old pile is actually the great ‘missing’ LaRue and is therefore priceless, thus giving the boys even greater incentive to sell-up, move-on and divvy-out the doings. That is, if the mouse doesn’t mind…

Did you ever watch The Money Pit? Released in 1986, it starred Tom Hanks & Shelley Long as an upwardly-mobile couple, striving to renovate an old house, despite a string of disasters (read it as a metaphor for Reagan’s America and it all makes sense). No? Well, I’ll wait for you, while you – Oh, you’re back. How was it? Yes, it was, wasn’t it?

And that’s Mousehunt’s trouble: it’s so similar to the earlier film, as to be its genetic – though evil – twin, and yet… I still laughed, despite myself.

While I’m feeling generous, let’s talk about the good bits of this film, beginning with its two leads. Reviews on its release, touched on the apparent lack of on-screen chemistry between Nathan Lane’s Ernie and Lee Evans’ Lars, but I wouldn’t be so harsh. Evans’ background lay in stand-up comedy, where he’d perfected a physical style blending facial gurning and innumerable tics that owed more to Norman Wisdom than Stan Laurel, yet it’d endeared him to audiences worldwide. Lane, too, had enjoyed considerable success in musical theatre – on Broadway – and had lent his voice to Disney’s Lion King (as Timon), that helped raise his profile. Both men had a sure grasp of what Mousehunt would need in order to work: a sense of comic…

… timing. It was to be a physical comedy of the old school and I can see what might’ve been the attraction for them: even back in ‘97, films like this just weren’t getting made any more. Within the confines of the material as presented, their relationship is good enough.

We should also mention Christopher Walken’s role of pest-exterminator extraordinaire: Caesar. This is stunt-casting of the first order, yet it works, with Walken delivering a picture-stealing cameo because Christopher Walken. Crazee.

That’s about it for the good stuff, really. Despite laughing, err, despite myself, the picture’s structure – its very premise – is lacklustre. To explain that, let’s return to the brothers and examine why each is unlikeable in their allotted function. I KNOW this is intentional, as it builds sympathy towards the mouse, but… Each is as mercenary as the other: so much so, that it’s reflected in their external relationships, mired as they are, in financial swamps. Lars has a money-grabbing, soon-to-be-ex-wife and is withholding wages from his factory’s workers, whereas Ernie suffers from a spendthriftian urge to spend money he doesn’t have; an affliction that leads him to buy a jacuzzi for the ruin / house, thus creating another intricately-choreographed set-piece and another kink in the plot, by representing a debt, secured against the house… Get the picture? The mouse screws-up their plans to sell and with no apparent income of any kind, the finance company stand to benefit: double jeopardy!

As I said, the brothers have to be unlikeable, in order for our sympathies to go to the mouse. It becomes an unlikely ‘good guy’, embodying their father’s upstanding virtues, whatever they might’ve been (we’re never told) and, as it evades ever-grander traps concocted by the brothers, so their inevitable comeuppances get ever more extreme: but we’re laughing AT them, not with them. We want to see them suffer…

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have with the film: the mouse is just a mouse. Sometimes it’s CGi, a live ‘stunt rat’, or a (crappy) animatronic puppet, but just a mouse, for all that. It doesn’t talk, sing or play the banjo. As a result, it’s little more than a scuttling plot device. Because some of the options chosen for the mouse by Director Gore Verbinski are so laughably awful (as they are for the cat, also), we never believe what we’re watching and therefore never care. Of course, then the wheel comes full-circle and I’m left asking myself whether it was always intended to be this bad, so as to make the mouse more of a McGuffin, that leads us to interpret the whole as a fable, but I think that might be overthinking things; hunting for subtext where there isn’t any. No, on-balance, I think this was always intended to be JUST a funny picture, period, which leaves the mouse as a stumbling mis-step.

Verbinski could have made the film and never showed the mouse, just the various traps springing, exploding and otherwise failing, thus turning the house into a giant flea circus / haunted house and it would’ve been just as funny. As it is, I get the feeling that the film-makers reached the point when they realised they could use these tools, but never moved beyond that to question whether they should. I might be on to something here: this was DreamWorks first live-action project, after a string of animations, so maybe the creatives believed it would be foolhardy to ignore the talent at their disposal…

Yet without the mouse, the script might’ve opened-up on the brothers and their relationship, giving us better insight into what made them tick, so that when the comedy came along, we’d have had more invested in them; we’d have been laughing with – not at – them.

As for the ending, it’s so lame as to defy my capacity to care…

It’s a shame. A real shame, given the comedic talent on offer here, but I have to say, that I despise myself for laughing at this picture, as I know, not only that I’m being manipulated, but that it could have been so much more. This was Verbinski’s first full-length feature, with the career-defining Pirates of the Caribbean franchise yet to enter the frame, yet I think the seeds of what would come to define Pirates, can be found even here: misanthropic leads, grandiose set-pieces that are choreographed with style and photographed efficiently, but add little to the ‘plot’ (which turns on the whims of a paper-thing McGuffin in any case) and a knockabout script that thinks audiences will be too entranced by all-of-the-above, to notice the little man behind the curtain, pulling the levers…

And despite all that, I still laughed: so what do I know?

Ernie: Shh! He’s goin’ for the cherries!

Lars: I thought you said mice like Gouda?

Ernie: Not in the morning! Cheese tires them out. They need fruit for energy!

Triple Word / Score:   Laughed / Despite / Myself / Seven

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