THE WHOLE NINE YARDS: High concept, low returns (2000 in Film #7)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Jonathan Lynn’s mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards is a strange confluence of elements. It puts together a high concept Hollywood comedy premise with two household names, one known for comedy, the other not, alongside a director from an entirely different pedigree.

When it comes to box office, the concoction worked. In one of the most crowded weekends for cinematic releases in the year 2000 up to this point, The Whole Nine Yards ends up qualitatively ruling the roost on those terms. You can understand why. Bruce Willis has by this point brought in punters on the strength of his name for over a decade, well established as one of the defining leading men of the 90’s. Matthew Perry, conversely, was perhaps the breakout star of the era-defining sitcom Friends as Chandler Bing, the deadpan master of the sarcastic one-liner. Friends was here in its wind up years, with Perry and many of the main cast spreading their wings into cinematic careers; indeed coincidentally this same weekend, Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow appears in another comedy, Hanging Up, just two weeks after Courteney Cox’s key role in Scream 3.

If back in the late 90’s you would have put money on the Friends star most likely to maintain a successful, post-show movie career, it would have been Jennifer Aniston, and by and large you would have been right, but The Whole Nine Yards puts a lot of faith in Perry that he can hold his own as a leading man against someone with the casual on-screen magnetism of Willis. And on the whole, Perry manages to translate elements of his awkward, geeky Chandler persona into the role of dentist Nicholas ‘Oz’ Ozeransky, and the fact The Whole Nine Yards doesn’t entirely work is not on Perry’s shoulders. The film doesn’t convince you that Perry is a natural romantic comedy lead but the problems lie in deeper roots.

Ultimately, The Whole Nine Yards—a phrase which translates as “the lot”—is remarkably, for a comedy, lacking in a lot of what you would call laughs, thanks to a cluttered, needlessly muddled script.

The Whole Nine Yards did well managing to fend off several challengers from different genres in its opening weekend, from corporate drama through to dark science-fiction.

Boiler Room, directed by Ben Younger, is a capitalist head rush. The aforementioned Hanging Up frontlines the pairing of Meg Ryan & Diane Keaton in a light comedy. Perhaps the film that has endured the most beyond Yards in the cultural consciousness is Pitch Black from David Twohy, starring a then little-known Vin Diesel (also in Boiler Room), a taut little high concept sci-fi thriller which Twohy believed could expand into a Star Wars-rivalling franchise and Diesel was convinced could transform his career, post-Fast and Furious. Neither came to pass in the end and had Pitch Black boasted a bigger star at the time, it may well have picked up a stronger box office take.

Stars, after all, are the ballast for The Whole Nine Yards and a major reason why the lukewarm script managed to slip through the net. You can see why the concept would hold interest – Perry as the nebbish Canadian dentist in a loveless marriage to the leeching Rosanna Arquette (probably the best actor in the film, largely wasted) discovering Willis’ former internationally-renowned contract killer is his neighbour. It’s the collision of opposites.

Perry had by now honed his technique on Friends as the loveable goon, while Willis has reached that stage of his career where he’s looking to play with his hard man on screen persona, or invert his own career – this is just a year after The Sixth Sense and the same year as Unbreakable, both in which for M. Night Shyamalan he would give a pair of career-defining interior performances. It’s probably for Willis the second highlight period of his career after the success of Die Hard, so theoretically The Whole Nine Yards should serve as a comedic addendum to that. Willis after all came from comedy, with his role in Moonlighting in the 80’s; indeed he memorably appeared in Friends, playing on his brooding, deadly intensity.

Yet for neither Willis or Perry is the kind of material their individual talents at this point deserve.

It’s strange why this isn’t the case, particularly given the involvement of Jonathan Lynn, a British writer-director best known for Yes, Minister and sequel Yes, Prime Minister for the BBC, both of which were razor sharp of wit thanks to Lynn’s deft writing. The 90’s afforded him success as a re-invented Hollywood comedy director, with his chief success being the memorable Joe Pesci vehicle My Cousin Vinny in 1992, but given Lynn came from the Cambridge Footlights stable along with talents such as the Python’s & Peter Cook, him ending up lensing The Whole Nine Yards—from a script he didn’t even write—doesn’t quite make sense. Lynn struggles to tease out the inherent comedic clash of the concept as the film’s story becomes lost amongst a number of farcical double-crosses, dual loyalties, romantic sub-plots, and knotty assassination plots that dilute what we’re here for, which is, essentially: Willis scaring the heck out of Perry and mining that for laughs.

Only that’s not quite what we end up getting. Perry’s Oz is scared, sure, entirely out of his depth dealing with mobsters and hitmen, but Yards is more interested in pairing him up with Natasha Henstridge’s (she fresh off two Species movies that sent her stratospheric) moll Cynthia, the wife of Willis’s assassin Jimmy ‘the Tulip’ Tudeski, and exploring his desire to escape a marriage built on repairing the damage wrought by his wife’s father’s underage sex scandal.

Jimmy, conversely, also feels like he’s trying to move on, eventually with Amanda Peet’s bizarre character – Oz’s friend Jill who is fascinated with true crime and hero worships Jimmy into bed, essentially, allowing the script to lasciviously pore over Peet’s body gratuitously at one point and give Willis the requisite younger love interest that props up his screen ego. It’s almost as hard to believe as Perry scoring with Henstridge. We just about bought Courteney Cox but this is pushing Perry’s romantic leading man chops even further than believing he could romance Salma Hayek in 1997’s Fools Rush In.

If we’re being generous, The Whole Nine Yards could be read as a Sopranos-era deconstruction of violent masculinity. The Sopranos was a few months old by this point, David Chase’s defining masterpiece making a mark with James Gandolfini as the existentially tortured gangster reckoning with his life choices, and following in the wake of Analyse This earlier that year with Robert De Niro comedically cashing in on his gangster persona (which he will again do later in 2000 in Meet the Parents). Willis to an extent is doing the same with Jimmy, the kind of character a few years ago he might have played straight (and would absolutely play straight later in the straight to DVD era of his career). “It’s not important how many people I’ve killed. What’s important is how I get along with the people who are still alive”. It’s not a redemptive arc, as Jimmy still kills here for comedic effect with abandon, but it’s reflective to an extent. Oz wants to escape the dull, unexciting life he’s been saddled with while Jimmy wants a calmer existence with a woman he loves.

Trying to extract these deeper themes, however, is a reach for a film Jonathan Lynn I suspect thinks is more of a 60’s style farcical caper than The Whole Nine Yards turns out to be. If it was on the page, the zip of it doesn’t translate to the screen. Scenes drag. The sexual politics feels dated – Arquette is a brainless shrew, Peet utterly obsessed with Jimmy’s dangerous masculinity, and even Henstridge starts a strong femme fatale and ends utterly at the mercy of Perry’s boyish, WASPy charm. There isn’t much in the way of action despite the gangster tropes the film is playing with, nor is it particularly funny – indeed I laughed more at Perry sitting in a deflating chair than anything the characters said to one another. Considering the pedigree of those involved, it all felt quite empty.

The Whole Nine Yards did well enough to provide a completely unnecessary, and critically derided, sequel in 2004 called The Whole Ten Yards (a title which makes less sense than why this film was based on the phrase in the first place) but by then audiences had worked out, post-Friends, that Matthew Perry wasn’t a movie star. While he gives a lacklustre product here his best shot, The Whole Nine Yards makes his limitations all too apparent.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

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