The Man

“The Man” is a reminder of something we Americans had forgotten in recent years: Eugene Levy is only funny when he’s not the star. Supporting or ensemble roles, he nails it. Sometimes he’s the only funny thing about a movie. But put him in the lead, and stand back, because this thing is gonna blow.

This is the case with “The Man,” an anemic buddy comedy in which a nerdy dental-supply salesman named Andy Fiddler (Levy) gets dragged into a case with a street-wise, tough-talking Detroit cop named Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson). This happens because Andy happens to be reading USA Today at a diner, and the bad guys Vann is trying to catch in a sting operation were told that their contact would be doing that. What would Vann have done if, as was entirely possible at 8 a.m. on a weekday, the diner had been FILLED with people reading USA Today?

Vann’s trying to find out who killed his partner, by the way, though you probably assumed that; it’s what hard-nosed cops are always doing in movies. Andy’s in town for a convention of dental-supply salesmen, and he just wants this mess to end before he has to give his speech tomorrow morning, but of course the mess just keeps getting stickier and stickier. The bad guys think Andy is a shady gun dealer, and I guess that’s supposed to be hilarious, because, I mean, LOOK at the guy.

The roles are too easy for both actors. You can almost hear the pitch to the studio: “The cop is a Samuel L. Jackson type, a real bada** mofo, you know? And the other guy is a really dorky white guy with glasses, a real Eugene Levy type, you know?” And the studio exec says, “Why don’t we just get Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy?”

They could play these roles in their sleep is my point, though I give them credit for apparently taking it seriously despite the misgivings they surely had about the script (written by Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman and Stephen Carpenter; Piddock is an actor who has appeared with Levy in the last few Christopher Guest movies). They pry a few chuckles from the standard “we’re partners but we don’t like each other” dialogue, certainly more than the movie deserves.

I was thinking it was about a C- movie: unquestionably bad, but not aggressively or annoyingly so. Then Levy’s character started farting. That’s when it became a D+ movie. I’m capricious like that sometimes.

D+ (1 hr., 23 min.; PG-13, a lot of profanity, some vulgarity, some violence.)