Published August 1, 1998
Safe Men written and directed by John Hamburg is that rare thing, a Tarantino-clone that nevertheless manages to be rather witty and charming. Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) are a couple of absolutely awful itinerant singers in Providence, Rhode Island who are but dimly aware of how bad they are. Sam, in particular, is an accomplished self-deceiver who explains to Eddie, after they play a Polish club, that “it’s a Polish tradition to show appreciation through silence” and assures him that “we freaked those people out.”
In a bar one night, they are approached by a man calling himself Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti) who mistakes them for a pair of safecrackers, Frank and Mitchell (Mark Ruffalo and Josh Pais), who are normally to be found in the bar but aren’t there that night. Under this misapprehension, Veal Chop tells the boys of an old man called Pappy for whom a friend of his has acted as male nurse. Pappy has $311,000 in a safe in his house. Cracking this safe is as easy as opening a can of Fresca, he assures them. He did it himself and walked off with $36,000, not taking any more simply because he couldn’t carry it. Now, however, he himself is acting as male nurse to the old boy and has developed what he calls the “Lawrence Nightingale syndrome” — his conscience won’t allow him to take the rest. But he doesn’t mind if they do.
They are hooked, though not quite so stupid as not to have a few misgivings that they are being set up by Veal Chop. Which, of course, they are. They arrive at the appointed place to discover the safe standing open — whereupon they are seized, bound together with duct tape and introduced to Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner), one of the two Jewish mobsters in Providence. Big Fat Bernie says he ought to kill them, but instead will allow them to live if they crack three safes for him. They insist they are not safecrackers. It looks like Veal Chop has screwed up. Big Fat Bernie tells him to get rid of them. Suddenly they say they are the safecrackers. “You guys are the guys?”
“We’re the best,” says Eddie.
Of course, they are no better at safecracking than they are at singing. Sam thinks this won’t matter and Big Fat Bernie won’t follow through on his threat to kill them if they don’t crack the safes. “He’s in the Jewish mafia,” he says. “I’m sure that’s much more like a club.” So the boys decide to get him a gift basket with jams and fruit and stuffed animals in lieu of cracking the safes. When he renews his threat to kill them, they reluctantly break into the house of the other Jewish mobster in Providence, Good Stuff Leo (Harvey Fierstein), a fence. Of course, they fail to crack his safe, but they do meet his daughter, the charming Hannah (Christina Kirk). She is in the process of breaking up with Frank, one of the real safecrackers, and — presumably having a thing for safecrackers — immediately falls for sad-sack Sam.
There is much, much more. One of the highlights comes when Big Fat Bernie is holding the lads at gunpoint as his twelve year old son, Big Fat Bernie Junior (Michael Schmidt), looks on impassively. His father says he’s going to kill them, and he doesn’t care if he does it in front of the kid. “It’s good for him to see this; he should learn a thing or two about tough love.” Another comes when Sam is invited to Rosh Hashanah dinner with Hannah’s family and Good Stuff Leo tells a hilarious story about his having fenced some designer trousers that turned out to be inflammable. A woman was so grateful that the trousers looked so good on her that she bought him some Kobe steaks. But as she was putting one on the grill, a spark caught on her trousers. . . Leo shakes his head. “You ask if I ever killed anyone. I sold a woman exploding pants. To some people that’s as bad as if I pulled the trigger.”
Will all end happily for Sam and Hannah? Will Eddie find his true calling in safe-cracking? Will Big Fat Bernie get the (stolen) Stanley Cup to present to Little Big Fat Bernie on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah? It is worth watching to find out, but just behind the merriment is that sense of weariness that comes from having seen it all before in Tarantino, when it had novelty going for it. Oh yeah, it’s the funny criminals again.