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Men at Work (1990)
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by Jack Sommersby

"'Work's For Me!"
4 stars

One of those movies that sneaks under the radar and manages to surprise with an unexpected amount of laughs.

The underrated Emilio Estevez comes through with a nice little comedy treat called Men at Work, which he's done triple duty on in the acting, writing and directing departments. It's the kind of take-it-or-leave-it entertainment that makes no apologies for its sophomoric silliness because on a purely undemanding level it works. There are a few miscalculations along the way, with the main one another unsuccessful performance by the mediocre, unsurprising Charlie Sheen, whose comic timing is about on par with a drunk fumbling about for his car keys. But about seventy-percent of the jokes score, and that's more than reason enough to justify it as a decent-enough recommendation for those looking for something low-key, light and pleasing. The setting is Las Playas, a small California beach community, where the skies are always blue, the air is impossibly clean, and the women are drop-dead gorgeous; and picking up the citizens' trash are longtime best friends Carl Taylor (Sheen) and James St. James (Estevez) who are the very definition of irresponsible. To get through their dreary days as garbagemen, they amuse themselves with mischievous hijinks (like rolling a discarded bowling ball down an alley) and disrespectful noise-making (like loudly banging and throwing trash cans in the wee early-morning hours); and they've got a friendly battle going on with two colleagues, rigging their lockers with booby traps and backing into their garbage truck. Carl and James keep promising this will be the last year they throw trash; this has been going on for the last three years. They do have one aspiration: to open their own surfboard business on the strand even though they've already been turned down by the bank for a business loan. Well, their workdays are made more interesting when their unhappy boss assigns an observer, Louis (Keith David), a mentally-unstable Vietnam veteran, to ride along with them. Humorlessly anal-retentive, this martinet makes just an hour of being with him a living hell. Further complicating matters is the discovery of a local politician's body in a garbage can. The man was about to blow the whistle on a powerful businessman, Maxwell Potterdam III (John Getz), for illegally disposing barrels of chemical waste into the ocean; and the businessman in turn dispatched two of his clumsy henchman to take him out. Fearing the police will think they did it, Carl and James, with an initially-reluctant Louis, decide to hide the body in Carl's apartment; in addition, they start spying on the politician's campiagn aide, Susan (Leslie Hope), who lives across the street from Carl to see what information they can learn. In one night, Carl and Susan strike up a romance, the henchmen try to find the body and take out Carl and James (whose picked-upon garbage collegues are also following them to try to even the score), a pizza-delivery boy is kidnapped by Louis, cars explode and police attention is attracted, and it all culminates at, fittingly enough, a landfill.

Where you could feel everything going wrong in Estevez' 1987 directing debut, the noble but negligible Wisdom, you can feel a good deal going right here. As mentioned, Sheen is his usual underwhelming self, but he and Estevez develop a winning rapport that's incorrigble -- you really believe they're best friends and would prefer each other's company over anbody else's. Whether it's spending their evenings winging someone with Carl's BB gun or playing Trivia Pursuit with a general disregard for the rules, these two souls belong together through and through. (It's understandable that they'd view marriage as the absolute kiss of death.) And the always-welcome David makes for the perfect foil. Seething with twenty-four intensity, Louis makes James immediately regret daring to snatch a French fry from his plate; and he has an even bigger problem with authority than our heroes, preferring to strip and handcuff a couple of meddlesome cops together on a merry-go-round in a park than cold-cocking them. As the villainous Maxwell, the game Getz isn't afraid of going over the top and pulls off some beautifully-modulated slow burns -- when he erupts, he's like a temperamental little kid denied his afternoon cookies-and-milk. A couple of one-liners come up short, but generally the dialogue is good (before Carl shoots a BB: "It allows me to seriously aggravate a situation without actually changing the course of history. It also stings like a bitch"), as is the dexterous music score by Stuart Copeland that's always in synch with material's goofy tone. There are some understated visual gags you have to pay close attention to catch, like the nerdy white athletic socks on two clumsy bicycle cops that are pulled up all the way to their knees; and, of course, there are some that not so subtle, like the henchmen's car with the license plate HITMEN. The real surprise is the deftness of Estevez's improved direction. With Wisdom he concentrated solely on a scene as a scene; here, using better instincts, he not only shapes the scenes better but coalesces them with a rhymic through-line that keeps everything consistently bouncy -- there's nary any lagtime. Oh, there are some quibbles. The mechanism that sets the plot in motion is odious -- why do our heroes need to hide the body just because Carl shot the politician with his BB gun the night before, especially since only James saw him do it and the police wouldn't have been the wiser? Because of Hope's slightly off-putting self-adoration, Sheen doesn't have the kind of quality chemistry with her that he does with Estevez. And the movie doesn't have the most satisfying of wrap-ups, as if Estevez didn't have any more film left in the camera. But overall the movie is enjoyable, and it gets just about all the mileage it can out of its limited story. Having an apparent high regard for his prospective audience, Estevez cares enough to fill in the cracks and corners so you get the most for your ticket-buying money. A rare Hollywood attribute, indeed.

Note to the home-video company that has the DVD rights: *Please* let Estevez and Sheen do an audio commentary for it.

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originally posted: 09/13/11 05:19:15
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User Comments

11/22/15 katrina shieldteg i have seen this movie itemilio estevez are good.actors 2 stars
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  24-Aug-1990 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Jun-2002



Directed by
  Emilio Estevez

Written by
  Emilio Estevez

  Emilio Estevez
  Charlie Sheen
  Keith David
  John Getz
  Leslie Hope

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