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Case Number 02678

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Keys To Tulsa

Artisan // 1997 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // March 5th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

Two men taken by one woman.

Opening Statement

An entire DVD-buying public taken for a ride.

Facts of the Case

Richter Boudreau (Eric Stoltz, still wishing that Back to the Future shoot had turned out more successfully) is a chronically footloose Oklahoma rich brat who's spent his entire life to date mooching from his dizzy, upwardly mobile mother (Mary Tyler Moore, playing her role as though guest-starring in a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show). Never able to hold a job, Richter's about to get booted from his current gig as a newspaper movie critic because he routinely sloughs off deadlines (a shameless breach of ethics that never occurs among the conscientious review staff here at DVD Verdict).

Richter still carries a torch for his high school sweetheart Vicki (Deborah Kara Unger, once again trapped in a nightmarish marriage to James Spader, as she was in Crash), who's now married to sleazoid Ronnie (Spader, mimicking a mediocre Elvis impersonator channeling David Keith in Heartbreak Hotel after a long weekend at Dr. Nick's), whose occupation could best be described as "independent pharmaceutical distributor and noncollateralized loan financier." Vicki also happens to be the sister of Richter's whacked-out best friend Keith (Michael Rooker, doing a sort of Portrait of a Serial Loose Cannon riff)—their oil-baron family longs to have Keith committed to keep his erratic hands off the family fortune.

Despite the fact that his life isn't wrapped too tightly from the get-go, things really start to unravel for Richter when Ronnie the Presleyesque pusher/loan shark entangles our slacker hero in a blackmail scheme involving the murder of an African American prostitute (whose race affords numerous opportunities for gratuitous spewing of the "N"-pejorative) who was best friends with Ronnie's mistress, a waifish stripper stage-named Cherry (Joanna Going, who looks like the girl you hire for the Winona Ryder part when Winona's busy shoplifting). Ronnie entrusts Richter with safeguarding the evidence, a pouchful of incriminating photographs that might implicate Keith the budding sociopath, or perhaps the son of local tycoon Harmon Shaw (the late James Coburn, who must have really needed a few extra bucks that week), or is maybe just a red herring to keep the audience from slipping off to dreamland completely.

The Evidence

Keys to Tulsa strikes me as the kind of movie an aspiring filmmaker—one with deep pockets and highly-placed friends in Central Casting—might create, after cursorily viewing a late-night double feature consisting of Double Indemnity and Body Heat. "I can do that!" shouts the tyro director, smacking himself on the forehead smartly enough to leave a reddened palmprint. The resulting mess is a film noir in which better judgment would have stopped writing "noir" after the second letter.

The rookie behind the lens in this case is director Leslie Greif, who apparently didn't believe he had caused sufficient embarrassment to Southwesterners by creating the abysmal Chuck Norris televehicle Walker, Texas Ranger. Greif has no visible clue how to select a screenplay, tell a story in moving pictures, direct actors, or position a camera—four skills that are fundamental prerequisites for a successful career as a movie auteur. Instead, Greif sleepwalks a cast of second-tier talent through a lackluster, interminable script, all the while lending a dreary visual style to the film that makes it look like this week's damsel-in-distress sudser on the USA Network.

Harley Peyton (Less Than Zero, Heaven's Prisoners)'s adaptation of Brian Fair Berkey's novel can't decide whether it's a black comedy, a neo-noir drama, or just an inept amalgam of the two. Not only does the script give the viewer zero characters we can care about, but the writer doesn't appear to care much about any of them either. The dialogue is uniformly flat, and delivered by the relentlessly low-key cast (Eric Stoltz and James Spader headlining a film? fire up the Mr. Coffee and pass the amphetamines) with all the emotional investment of a radio traffic reporter announcing a midday backup on the Jersey Turnpike. Although the arc of the story suggests a mystery, there really isn't one—the only unanswered question is answered two-thirds of the way through the film, in as arbitrary a manner as one could imagine.

It's actually quite remarkable that Greif managed to corral so many familiar faces into this muddle, though it's sad that he offers them so little worthwhile to do. (I think James Coburn and Peter Strauss must have stopped by the set between takes on some other project just to graze the buffet, and wound up drafted into microscopic speaking parts.) Joanna Going, especially, gets saddled with the thankless humiliation of coming unclothed every few minutes just to keep eyeballs on the screen. One dreadful and degrading scene calls for Going to stagger through a cocktail party in a strapless frock three sizes too large for her wispy frame—just so her male costars and the camera crew can leer down her gaping bodice. (Sorry, baby, but you haven't come a long way after all.)

In the end, though, Keys to Tulsa is offensive more for its lack of genuine effort than for anything substantive that occurs onscreen. Unlike the legendary cross-country highway that once wound through its titular city, Keys to Tulsa doesn't offer many interesting sights or local color. It's content merely to pantomime the motions of a noir thriller without incorporating any of the customary atmosphere or suspense. The only kicks on this tired stretch of Route 66 are a few well-deserved kicks to the curb.

I'm not sure whether it's a positive or negative fact that Artisan has given this snoozefest such a mediocre DVD presentation. On the plus side, one hopes that the resources the studio didn't squander on this disc were invested in a spiffier release of a more worthy film. On the negative side, for those pitiful souls unfortunate enough to have to sit through this somnolent excuse for a movie, it might as well look and sound nice. Alas, what we get is a full-frame, middle-grade transfer with decent color separation but weak depth, and some truly annoying edge enhancement. The soundtrack is trebly 2.0 stereo and features some of the tackiest background music you'll hear in legitimate cinema. I realize this is a movie about sleazy characters one generation removed from the trailer park, but does the score have to sound as though it was spliced in from a X-rated video?

Extras? Oh yes, my friend, we have extras. Artisan has spared (and incurred) no expense to provide you a dandy selection of ten (count 'em, ten, on a total of eight screens) publicity stills from the movie, four (count 'em, four; forty percent of the total) of which are duplicated on either the cover or the insert. Be still, my heart.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Shameless Marketing Ploy #572: Despite the fact that Cameron Diaz's role in Keys to Tulsa is a sneeze-and-you'll-miss-her cameo (2-1/4 minutes total screen time by my stopwatch) in a throwaway opening scene that adds zero to the plot (and that well might have ended up on the cutting room floor were it not for Diaz's burgeoning stardom), Artisan has billed her third on the DVD cover art (behind Eric Stoltz and James Spader) as though she's a major player in the film. (The opening credits awarded Diaz second place after Stoltz, so perhaps Artisan should be given a break for knocking her down a rung.)

Compounding this travesty, the cover also features a prominent photo of a crouching blonde woman wearing huge sunglasses, superimposed over the glowering visages of Messrs. Stoltz and Spader. Anyone glancing at the cover who hasn't seen the film would presume, from the names printed above the title, that the woman is Cameron Diaz. She isn't—it's Deborah Kara Unger, who isn't even credited in the fine-print indicia on the rear of the keep case. But Artisan blatantly chose this cover photo for the very reason that, given the posture and the shades, it's hard to tell just who the actress is. By displaying Cameron Diaz's name above the picture, purchasers are misdirected into believing this is she. Even used car salesmen rarely resort to this egregious an example of bait-and-switch.

Artisan: sell, if you must, a rotten movie to audiences who want to check it out. But for pity's sake, don't trick the buying public into thinking they're getting something they aren't. It's the kind of dirty pool that gives the marketing profession a bad name.

Closing Statement

Throw away these keys. You can create your own one-word review of Keys to Tulsa simply by spelling out the last name of director Leslie Greif with Scrabble tiles, then reversing the vowels. More painfully tedious than actually being in Tulsa.

The Verdict

Guilty of wasting a competent cast on a witless script, aimless direction, and northeastern Oklahoma. The Judge would sentence the cast and crew of Keys to Tulsa (the late Mr. Coburn excepted) to a summer of picking up trash along historic Route 66, but he fears they'd collect far too many copies of this DVD. So he's willing to accept time served.

Court is in recess.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 76
Audio: 72
Extras: 0
Acting: 71
Story: 56
Judgment: 58

Perp Profile

Studio: Artisan
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

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