Two If by Sea
There is a bad smell emanating from this movie from its first moments: the jazzy jump cuts that do not quite work, the weird shots of the backs of our protagonists' heads. We are instantly plunged into a road movie – a cross between Nouvelle Vague memories and Smokey and the Bandit (1977) – but, from the word go, none of the ingredients gel. It aims – I think! – to be a cross between a knockabout heist movie and a low-life romantic comedy.
What about the characters? Frank (Denis Leary) and Roz (Sandra Bullock) are supposedly real, down-and-dirty, working class Americans. On the road, they bicker furiously about Batman movies, the musical Cats, and supermodels. And, before the story begins, they have clumsily stolen a Matisse worth millions, setting a phalanx of cops and FBI agents on their trail. (This inciting detail would seem to be inspired by a real-life criminal case from 1994 involving an Australian film director, a romance novelist, and a Picasso sketch snatched from the home of a wealthy Californian.)
Once the initial chase peters out and the pair take refuge in a luxurious mansion by the water, the film alternates between three utterly dreary plot lines. There is the slapstick spectacle of a gaggle of low-class crooks en route to claim the Matisse. There is the detective work carried out by a grumpy, Irish-black FBI guy (Yaphet Kotto). And there is the relationship crisis between Frank and Roz – this rom-com aspect being, bizarrely, the only one featured in the typically deceptive American trailer.
Roz, as it happens, wants more from life than an uncommitted partner and petty theft. So she flirts with a sophisticated, plummily British art collector/horse breeder, Evan (Stephen Dillane). Frank behaves badly and defensively in response, but knows that he must take decisive action. This leads to a terrible sequence where Frank catches a fish (with a gun) and cooks it. Roz is unimpressed; so was I.
It is often said that American movies avoid the issue of social class and its divisions. Many vulgar comedies in the Porky’s (1981-1985 & 2009) vein do treat this topic, but in a brutal, populist spirit: they humiliate representatives of the highly cultured classes and exalt animal behaviour. Two If By Sea tries to place a bet every which way (but loose). It bashes the rich while mercilessly mocking an “underclass” of crooks and ordinary dreamers – and ends up feebly pleading for bourgeois respectability. Meanwhile, angling for a bullish working-class vulgarity, the film also juices a slightly exotic, non-American quality – as if the producers were inspired by some tough-minded UK comedies. Hence, one assumes, the hiring of Australian director Bill Bennett for the job.
This is an ugly, empty, unpleasurable movie on every level, straining for an off-centre, “indie” feel. I have yet to be convinced that comedy is Bennett’s forte (see Jilted  or Spider and Rose ). When working in this genre, his visual style becomes ungainly and overwrought, and his actors flail about at alarmingly different energy levels. The overall pitch is just never right – and, whenever in doubt, Bennett throws in yet another shot of some oaf falling over.
Before this movie, I assumed I could like absolutely anything with Denis Leary in it. Whether playing a manic, sub-proletrian crook in The Ref (1994), a sleek gang leader in Judgment Night (1993) or the vicious, seething patriarch of The Neon Bible (1995), Leary is an actor with a riveting, multi-faceted screen persona – always teetering on a thin line between brittle comedy and hard drama.
As co-writer, Leary clearly intended Two if By Sea to extend the range of both himself and Bullock, giving them some rough-and-tumble authenticity beyond the usual screen stereotypes. But it’s a difficult call: Leary usually doesn’t try to play for the pathos option; it seems foreign to his persona. The trouble with this film is that Leary finds it virtually impossible to make himself over into a romantic guy, someone that you really want to see get back with his girl and make their relationship work out OK. And Bullock is handed even less to work with.
It is hard, in the event, to imagine a movie that could possibly make either of these performers any less appealing.
© Adrian Martin February 1996