|Safe Men (1998)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Paul Giamatti
Director: John Hamburg
“Happy, Texas.” “Tadpole.” “The Tao of Steve.” “Wet Hot American Summer.” Not every Sundance hit finds commercial success on the other side of the road, and while some indie comedies (like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State”) have experienced life after the festival circuit, most audience favorites see little more than a paltry limited release. Such is the case with “Safe Men” – the 1998 directorial debut from John Hamburg (writer of “Meet the Parents” and “Zoolander”) – which failed to charm anyone in theaters outside of Park City, but managed to earn a small following during its arrival on VHS. Regardless of its failed theatrical run, however, “Safe Men” remains one of the quirkiest comedies to come out of Sundance in over ten years, complete with hilarious performances by a cast of up-and-comers including Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Mark Ruffalo and Paul Giamatti.
Rockwell and Zahn star as Sam and Eddie (respectively), an untalented duo of lounge singers who find themselves breaking into the world of organized crime when a low-level mobster (Giamatti) mistakes them for the best safecrackers in town (Ruffalo and Josh Pais). Conned into believing a story about an easy score – which actually happens to be a setup designed to test their skills – the duo are forced to go into business with a Jewish mobster, Big Fat Bernie (Michael Lerner), as repayment for breaking into his house. The plot thickens, however, when Sam falls in love with the daughter (Christina Kirk) of yet another Jewish mobster (Harvey Fierstein) who they’ve been assigned to steal from.
The basic plot is actually quite lame, but it’s the small moments that ultimately produce the biggest laughs. Whether it’s the uncomfortable conversation between the four thieves when Sam and Eddie beat the other pair to the punch, or the straight-laced preparation of a gift basket intended for a mob boss, the writing is at its absolute quirkiest during the simplest of situations. It certainly helps to have a few talented guys around, and Rockwell and Zahn are an excellent comedic duo (perhaps even better than the “Saving Silverman” team-up of Zahn and Jack Black). Meanwhile, Ruffalo channels his best Rick Moranis and Peter Dinklage stops by for a cameo as a sledgehammer-carrying hitman.
Of course, the standout performance by Giamatti is the real reason to see this flick. Decked out in tiger-stripped “Hammer pants” and mesh (read: see-thru) tank tops, Giamatti exudes pure sleaze, but somehow manages to abstain from coming off as a complete asshole. Now that’s talent, and it only further proves why he’s one of the fastest rising stars in the industry today. Unfortunately, this isn’t the role that got him there, but if you have the time to check it out, “Safe Men” won’t disappoint.
The single-disc Collector’s Edition of “Safe Men” marks the first time the film has appeared on DVD, but there’s not enough bonus material to make it feel special or collectible. Aside from the excellent audio commentary with director John Hamburg and stars Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn, the only other extras include three deleted scenes (which will only satisfy fans of Michael Showalter) and Hamburg’s student film, “Tick,” a mildly entertaining short about a couple of freelance bomb de-fusers.