Published January 1, 1998
I really wanted to like Mouse Hunt, which was officially directed by Gore Verbinski but unfortunately bears the hallmarks of the directorial style of Steven Spielberg, out of whose “Dreamworks” studio it comes. Every now and then, it is true, the skills of the comic duo of Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as the brothers Ernie and Lars Smuntz afford us a glimpse of what these two might have been in more sensitive hands—which is a latter-day Laurel and Hardy. Lane’s Hardyesque desperation and Evans’s rubber-faced cluelessness, so powerfully reminiscent of that of his fellow Englishman, Stan Laurel, are constantly promising to become brilliantly, perfectly complementary. This could have been a comedy to rival the cinematic classics. But there is always one kind of Spielbergism or another getting in the way and obscuring our view.
The Spielbergian marks of doom are of two kinds. One comes with the film’s relentless sentimentality over the blasted mouse, which is pursued with comic fecklessness by the two brothers as they attempt to refurbish their one possession, an architectural gem of a house left them by their recently deceased father (played by the recently deceased William Hickey). Now one joke in which the mouse gets the better of the bumbling brothers would have been quite enough, it seems to me. But the comic intelligences behind this film don’t seem to have been able to think of very many other jokes, so they just keep repeating the same one over and over until, not surprisingly, the damned animatronic mouse becomes the movie’s hero. This makes its cuteness even more annoying than it would otherwise be.
Secondly, the quasi-Spielbergian quick-cut technique, whereby we are whisked along breathlessly from one scene of comic mayhem to the next, allows us no opportunity to get to know the Smuntz brothers as we need to know them for their full comic potential to be realized. Verbinski’s weakness, like Spielberg’s, is character development, and the great comedians always give us more of a sense of their individuality than this kind of frantic treatment can ever allow to emerge.
These things having been said (as the Romans would put it), there are some excellent jokes and some good laughs in the film even as it is. One of my favorites comes as Ernie is bemoaning the unlucky accident by which the mayor, dining in his, Ernie’s, posh restaurant, happened to eat a cockroach and die. Naturally the restaurant went out of business, leaving Ernie destitute. Was ever man so victimized by fate? But, Ernie points out, the world’s turning upon him is not his fault. He is a mere scapegoat. “The same thing happened to Galileo.”
“Really?” says Lars. “That’s unbelievable. You mean with the cockroach and everything?”
There are too few such moments. But the inspired lunacy of this line, and Evans’s perfect timing in delivering it, suggests what might have been possible if the writing and directing talents here had been the equal of the stars’.