I’ve never asked myself, “What if Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence got together to do a buddy comedy?” After seeing Nothing To Lose, I won’t ever have to.

Steve Oedekerk’s 1997 follow-up to Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls could be your guilty pleasure brew-and-view, or toke-and-view depending on your pleasure. It could probably be your go-to Martin Lawrence fix, after you get tired of watching Blue Streak and Bad Boys II over and over again. It’s a weird little movie because I can’t honestly picture myself sitting around watching it with friends. Not enough of the humor is accidental to warrant that kind of viewing, I suppose.

But it is funny.

The story revolves around Nick (Tim Robbins), a slick ad-man who’s too lighthearted to drift into Don Draper territory. He separates work and home life, he’s got a wry sense of humor, he’s a charmer. In fact he doesn’t do anything wrong, so the scene where he walks in on his wife (Kelly Preston) and his boss (Michael McKean) in bed together is just that much more of a slap in the face.

This provokes a curiously subdued emotional breakdown in which he gets into his 1996 GMC Yukon and drives clear across town, running red lights and putting along at 15 mph on the expressway. Soon enough he comes to the bad side of L.A. and is promptly held up at gunpoint by Terrance (Martin Lawrence). Only Terrance is a novice carjacker and Nick, as the film’s title suggests, is the wrong white guy to mess with.

Once the action moves to the Arizona desert, the film really picks up. Nick and Terrance are pursued by hick law enforcement, cross paths with another black-white buddy ensemble from a darker parallel universe (maybe a Coen Brothers movie), and take turns knocking off backroads convenience stores. Eventually we learn that Nick’s boss is hoarding a small fortune in his office guarded only by a well-endowed fertility god statue, and Nothing To Lose turns into a heist movie.

There’s nothing particularly original about the movie itself, but the plot throws just enough surprises at you to keep you invested throughout, even after it loses steam late in the second act. It goes down some unexpected avenues, some random, some a little awkward. Other than that, it’s perfectly formulaic. Which isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, I found most of this unlikely pair’s antics riotously funny.

My only complaint with Nothing To Lose is that it doesn’t touch upon anything significant enough to prevent it from fading into obscurity instead of securing a niche as a cult classic. I don’t have a problem with formula, but there has to be something going on between the lines. A movie like Trading Places has stuck around because it says something about greed and the mobility of one’s station in life. I predict that in a few short weeks I will have completely forgotten I even watched this movie, or that Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence were ever in the same room. Which is a shame, because they make a great duo.

But there’s nothing especially meaty I can grab onto here, and digest after it’s over. At first, I had the impression I was watching something truly original, but afterwards, I realized it was just another Martin Lawrence vehicle. And in that regard, Steve Oedekerk is a consummate magician. Unfortunately, I won’t be trolling eBay for a $5 used copy to add to my DVD collection.

Maybe it’s just not dark enough for my questionable tastes. The Coen Brothers, to throw that example out there again, could have turned this same premise into something truly memorable. Either Nick or Terrance might have abruptly died halfway through, and Oedekerk’s bizarre cameo would have hit the editing room floor so fast it would make Sonic the Hedgehog blush, but you’d probably have something you could at least watch again, and discuss in a film class.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that’s what the film should have been. As black-white/rich-poor Trading Places-type buddy movies go, it’s definitely ahead of the curve; I just can’t recommend it to friends as a film that brings a crucial piece of the pie to the canon of cinema.

That said, I pretty much loved every minute of it.

I never had any burning desire to see a collaboration between Robbins and Lawrence, but honestly, the two are great together. Lawrence is a little more reserved than usual, and Robbins is a little less.

Surprisingly enough, the humor is not driven by Nick’s ignorance of black culture. In fact, racial jokes are largely absent, which is refreshing. Instead the comedy comes from the situations, which range from the aimlessly bizarre to the utterly ridiculous. In the middle of a robbery, the characters get into a debate (with the bewildered shopkeeper) over which is the less contrived approach.

They’re foils of style: Terrance is a hot-headed, half-cocked amateur and Nick is an unstable but mostly straight-faced articulate exec who’s aware he’s having an emotional crisis and is more amused by it more than anything. In an early scene when they still practically hate each other’s guts, Nick calls Terrance “beetle-headed,” then has to explain that it’s a synonym for “stupid.” “Well here’s a synonym for procreation,” Terrance retorts: “Fuck you!” Once they get their more obvious differences aside, there isn’t that much of a communication barrier. Here’s a black-white buddy movie that doesn’t waste precious running time on a prolonged ebonics lesson. As such, the plot is fueled less by their racial and economic differences and more by their similarities. These two guys understand each other, and draw strength from each other.

If you’re a Martin Lawrence fan and you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you. This is Lawrence at his more inspired, even if he does seem to be holding back. Tim Robbins’s nice-guy-come-unhinged left me a little nostalgic for Michael Douglas’s pencil-pusher gone truly postal in Falling Down, but it’s hardly a fault.

John C. McGinley and Giancarlo Esposito round out the cast as a couple of fugitives who get mistaken for our heroes. I found myself trying to decide which pairing was more hilarious, Lawrence’s amateur carjacker with Robbins’s doddering highbrow, or John C. McGinley’s sensitive bully alongside Giancarlo Esposito’s deranged Mad Hatter-type with a classically-trained ear and a Baron Samedi cackle.

Anyway, pretentiousness aside, I can’t really say anything bad about Nothing To Lose. The movie entertained the hell out of me. And you know what? It’s a great time.

You’ve simply got nothing to gain by watching it.

Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

Comments (1)

On May 9, 2012 at 3:21 AM, Bonnie Hall wrote...

What is the fertility God’s name do you know?

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