The Eek Files

Mouse Hunt slips audiences a comical mickey

Macaulay Culkin's replacement in the new Home Alone 3 owns a pet rat. If Mouse Hunt, the DreamWorks attempt at a holiday family comedy, hits it big, members of the Home Alone bunch may kick themselves. Why try to package a skin-crawly brat as America's darling, when you can just let the rodent star in the picture? It works pretty well for Mouse Hunt. The title is appropriate--the film couldn't be much more inconsequential. But it made me laugh, with only a few lulls, all the way through, and I wasn't alone in this.

The mouse lives between the walls of a decrepit old mansion. The hunters are two greedy cretins (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans) who have inherited the place from their string-magnate father (the late, great William Hickey, to whom the film is dedicated). The father never lived in the place, which has been empty for years--the mouse has been home alone for a long time.

When Ernie (Lane) and Lars (Evans) are forced, through a labored series of wacky complications, to move into the place, the mouse is suspicious, but tolerant at first. But when they try to kill him, he rises up in defense of his territorial imperative. He seems to have watched plenty of Looney Tunes, and thus Ernie and Lars suffer a series of Wile E. Coyote comeuppances.

Mouse Hunt avoids the pitfall of its prototype. Home Alone was, basically, a presexual Straw Dogs. Despite its cartoony surface, it had the same reactionary subtext as Sam Peckinpah's film--it dramatized the desire of middle-class American males to prove their manhood through violent defense of their property. This, probably, is why I have leaped to the conclusion that the furry hero of Mouse Hunt is male, even though the creature's gender is never specified.

It's probably also the reason I found this movie so much more palatable than Home Alone. I'd have been overjoyed to see the two burglars get the upper hand on the glassy-eyed Macaulay Culkin, but the far more expressive hero of Mouse Hunt inspires immediate empathy. Who has so hard a heart that he wouldn't root for a mouse--a "wee, sleekit, cowrin', timrous beastie," as Robert Burns would say--especially over the polished show-biz brassiness of Nathan Lane?

The director, who insists that his name is Gore Verbinski (and who made the Budweiser frog commercials), brings off some intricate slapstick set pieces with deftness, and he manages a sort of Tim Burtonish whimsicality of tone, although, unlike Burton's worlds, it's whimsy with no real poetry beneath. The plot is a series of blackout vignettes, and the screenwriter, Adam Rifkin, has linked them serviceably but not elegantly. If Ernie and Lars accidentally douse the living room with raw sewage, in the next scene the room is spotless. If the two men are sent crashing through the ice of a pond near the house, in the next scene they're in dry clothes.

As far as the filmmakers are concerned, they're just back at square one, like Wile E., ready to be destroyed again. And this might be fine, except that, unlike the Roadrunner cartoons, Mouse Hunt is more than six minutes long. It's left to the actors to supply the sense of rising hysteria.

Happily, Lane is on hand for this. Though Evans does some good, funny mime toward the end of the film, he is a fairly negligible presence here. It's Lane's shrewd performance which makes the film snap. He has some of the snide, disdainful drollery of Paul Lynde, though he's far more subtle than Lynde.

Lane's characterization is a small triumph in the narrow actor's art of the comic villain. Even though he's clearly a shit and an idiot, you can't help but like Ernie, but you don't want him to succeed in crunching poor mousey. The last really good performance of this sort that I can think of was by William Atherton as the corrupt college professor in Real Genius, Martha Coolidge's neglected campus comedy of 1985.

Although the mouse's behavior has been anthropomorphized through computer trickery, what's more delightful is how much of the time (if I can trust my eye, at least) it's a real animal, and how well the sense that we're watching a living creature is maintained. I kept dreading the moment when Verbinski would have the mouse look at the audience and giggle at the plight of his poor dunderhead victims, the equivalent of the noxious "yesss!" from Home Alone.

It's to Verbinski and Rifkin's infinite credit that they never resort to this cheap gag--they, unlike many, many people now making broad comedy, have some feel for the line between zany and shamelessly dumb. That earns them forgiveness for the odd mistimed gag and the occasional flat episode, like the one involving the attack cat that the boys turn loose on their tiny foe. Even in this scene, the mouse is allowed to keep his deadpan, mysterious character. In the film's funniest line, Ernie sneers at Lars' suggestion that the mouse is mocking them, and Verbinski is smart enough to see that this is the right attitude--even in this movie, that would be silly.

The supporting cast is full of fine actors--Vicki Lewis, Michael Jeter, Eric Christmas, Maury Chaykin, Ernie Sabella, Ian Abercrombie--but their roles are glorified bits, except for Christopher Walken. As an obsessed exterminator, he gets a showcase scene to send up his patented intense persona; his segment might be called The Mousehunter. It's pretty funny, but worrisome for Walken--he's starting to specialize in self-parodies.

Mouse Hunt
Directed by Gore Verbinksi; with Nathan Lane and Lee Evans.
Rated

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