Ethics & Public Policy Center

Nothing to Lose

Published in EPPC Online on July 1, 1997



Nothing to Lose, written and directed by Steve Oedekerk, stars Tim Robbins as Nick, an advertising executive in Los Angeles who is carjacked by “T” (Martin Lawrence) while in a state of shock over his apparent discovery of his wife, Ann (Kelly Preston), in bed with his boss, Phil (Michael McKean). Sittiing at an intersection in his yuppie, “Yukon” sports-utility vehicle, he turns to the man with the gun, who has sought to frighten him with menacing ghetto talk ( “Welcome to hell, bitch!) and smiles: “Boy, did you pick the wrong guy on the wrong day!” At this point he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, and this enables him to turn the tables and take the carjacker hostage.

It is a high-concept movie with which there are many things wrong. Among them, three stand out. First, the carjacker, don’t you know, turns out to be a lovable, decent sort, a stable married man with a loving wife and two adorable children, who simply can’t get a job in spite of his qualification in electronic engineering (it is strongly suggested that the reason is racism) and so is forced into street crime. This is, to say the least, not your average carjacker. The portrait of him combines the venerable Hollywood fantasy of the fundamentally decent criminal with a patronizing stereotype of his formidable “momma” forever whupping him (and anybody else who crosses her) upside the head.

Second, when this interracial odd-couple bonds, as we know they must, and plan a robbery of Nick’s cuckolding boss) they are pursued by another interracial pair of comic criminals (John C. McGinley and Giancarlo Esposito) who might have stepped straight out of the “Home Alone” movies. And it is another step into fantasy and cliché which is both unnecessary and diminishing of the comedy there might otherwise be in the recognition by the would-be criminals of the kind of world they are about to get mixed up in. Why not take a chance and make the bad guys really bad and really dangerous?

Third, the ending is too easy, too convenient, too pat and comes like a deus ex machina to extract our heroes from the very complicated mess they have got themselves into. Of course we want a happy ending from a comedy and would not want Nick and “T” to end up dead in a ditch, as they almost certainly would in real life, but this particular way of ending, which I forbear to reveal, has the effect of wiping away everything that has gone before, almost as if it were that ultimate audience cheat, recently essayed in the “Roseanne” sitcom, of “. . .and then I woke up.”

All this having been said, however, Nothing to Lose is throughout much of its length very entertaining. Robbins shows an unexpected talent for comedy, even though he is most often the straight man, and he and Lawrence work very well together. Perhaps the funniest bit comes when the two rob a hardware store and quarrel over which approach, loud or quiet, is more scary to the victim. The old man behind the counter offers to adjudicate and decides for “T” and the loud approach over Nick and the quiet one. “You were scary too,” he offers, not wishing to hurt Nick’s feelings.

If you can forget for a moment the implausibility of Nick’s turning to crime, of T’s turning away from it and the ending, it is possible to sit back and enjoy the collection of rather superior gags, both verbal and visual, which are strung together on a frail conceptual thread without ever depending on it for their effect. Be sure to sit through the end credits for the final joke.

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