Hit man Critical Jim (Tim Allen)--who apparently watches movies to escape the mental anguish he suffers from being a cold-blooded ruthless killer--is hired by the mob to knock off a reporter named Cletis Tout who is mistakenly thought to still be alive. Jim kidnaps a guy he thinks is Tout but is really a prison escapee named Trevor Finch (Christian Slater) who assumed the reporter's identity not knowing he was a marked man. Jim agrees to let him go if he can come up with a story good enough to be made into a movie so in a series of flashbacks that lead up to the present Finch tells a story from his own life that unfolds something like this: Micah the magician (Richard Dreyfuss) foils dumb (everybody is dumb in this movie) bank guards by staging a magic show that's a cover for a robbery. Micah along with his daughter buries the loot--a boatload of diamonds--in a field. Twenty-odd years after the robbery Finch is in prison with Micah who with the same wit-defying magic stages a break that foils the hard-nosed (read: dumb) prison guards. Now Finch and Micah want to recover the diamonds--but uh-oh a prison has been built over where the loot is stashed. Holy crap! They've got to break into prison! Enter Micah's now-grown-up daughter (the delicious Portia de Rossi); two dumb thugs; a hotheaded gangster; coffee-drinking cops; an aging hippie pathologist with a blithe French accent; a dead prostitute; and alas Rupaul and you've got all the makings of an ensemble Hollywood crime caper.
Too bad the best part of the movie Dreyfuss in a dry but affecting performance as a magician with a criminal streak is killed off a third into the story. That leaves Slater with all the emotional range of a sock puppet to carry the show not only as the narrator (nasal monotone) but as a hostage and mastermind forger who gets himself put back into prison to dig up the diamonds. Slater's not a leading man; his head is too big for his body and he's still channeling Jack Nicholson (as Critical Jim points out). What Slater does well--giving the impression something sinister is cooking in his humongous coconut like he did to maximum intensity in True Romance--he does not do well here. The chemistry between Allen and Slater is non-existent with Slater's terse puzzled expression unable to counteract Allen's deadpan delivery of classic film dialogue (from Breakfast at Tiffany's The Dirty Dozen etc.). The Toolman's performance as a deadpan stone-faced film-going gangster won't hurt his résumé but he's much better mouthing lines for the deadpan stone-faced Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story flicks (better yet will somebody please bring back the burned-out high-strung version of Allen for a sequel to Galaxy Quest?). Portia de Rossi gives us an extended performance from her two-lines-of-bitchy-dialogue-per-episode stint from Ally McBeal. If the producers of Cletis Tout? were smarter they'd have made a 90-minute movie about de Rossi's hair.
The movie opens with two dumb thugs sitting in a diner discussing why the hillbillies from Deliverance chose to defile porker Ned Beatty instead of hunky Burt Reynolds. Critical Jim later explains the toothless bootleggers made their decision based on low self-esteem--such is the deep philosophical level of Who Is Cletis Tout?. Sophomore director Chris Ver Wiel who also wrote the screenplay had something that may have looked good on paper: a crime story hearkening to Peter Seller's slapstick comedies from the '60s and '70s. But the translation to the screen is a heaping mess of convenient plot ties unfunny jokes choppy storytelling and absurd situations like de Rossi firing a submachine gun from a rooftop with no clear target--who's she trying to bump off? The dumb thugs who killed her old man? Cletis/Finch? Speaking of which apart from the fact that Finch (Slater) has a head the size of a weather balloon how could the cops not first implement a background check when he asks them to put him in prison (and thus dig up the diamonds)? Nothing in this movie makes sense--except for Rupaul in drag.