“Who Is Cletis Tout?” seeks to be a pastiche of other movies, especially old ones. It wants to be a TYPE of movie, rather than a movie — a template, if you will, of old-fashioned movies about bad guys and diamond heists and getting the girl.
Why a movie would set out to be generic is beyond me, but “Who Is Cletis Tout?” aims for vanilla and hits the bullseye! I don’t know whether to give it a good review for accomplishing its goals, or a bad review for having goals that were stupid.
Written and directed by Chris Ver Wiel, an underground filmmaker who somehow convinced several actual stars to appear in his latest effort, “Cletis Tout” includes references and homages to films as varied as “The Great Escape,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Deliverance” and “Double Indemnity.” It has as its hitman a gentle fellow named Critical Jim (Tim Allen), a man in a dapper suit who watches old movies when he’s not killing people.
He has captured the man he believes to be his latest quarry, Cletis Tout, who in fact is an escaped con named Fitch (Christian Slater) who has merely adopted the recently deceased Tout’s identity. The people who killed Tout are after Fitch now, thinking they screwed up and didn’t kill Tout after all. (Lesson one in aliases: Don’t adopt the persona of someone who was hated by everyone who knew him.)
Fitch tells Critical Jim his story, which goes back to a diamond thief (Richard Dreyfuss), his hidden treasure, and his now-grown daughter Tess (Portia de Rossi). There were attempts to retrieve the buried diamonds, and a tenuous romance between Fitch and Tess. We see all of this in flashbacks, even as Critical Jim tells Fitch that the flashback is a much misused and misunderstood device in movies.
“Cletis Tout” is full of self-awareness like that, which almost makes it clever. Jim talks about character types and breaking a movie down into three acts, all while setting up THIS movie’s characters and divisions. Cute, yes. But it wears thin. If you’re going to make a film cobbled together from other films, for heaven’s sake, don’t draw our attention to that fact!
It is, ultimately, impossible for “Who Is Cletis Tout?” to stand on its own. By design, its characters are unoriginal facsimiles of familiar types. This means we’re not liable to care about them, and we certainly won’t be surprised by the things that happen to them, since the movie makes it clear the plot will be an old chestnut with all the regular twists and happy endings.
But Tim Allen does tell Christian Slater he sounds a lot like Jack Nicholson — the only insightful or amusing thing to occur in the entire film.
D (1 hr., 32 min.; )