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by Mike McGranaghan

The comedy Dirty Work brings up an interesting question: Is it possible for a movie to be funny without actually being any good? The answer, apparently, is yes. This film is a showcase for the humor of former "Saturday Night Live" star Norm MacDonald. His is a style of humor that you either get or you don't. I get it; NBC President Don Ohlmeyer doesn't. The upshot is that Dirty Work is pretty poor as a movie, but hilarious as a vehicle for its unique star.

MacDonald plays Mitch Weaver, a perpetually out-of-work loser who nonetheless has a talent for getting even with people he doesn't like. Mitch spends most of his time with his best friend Sam (Artie Lange, formerly of "MAD TV"). One afternoon, Sam's irascible father Pops (Jack Warden) keels over with a heart attack. He's taken to the hospital where the incompetent Dr. Farthing (Chevy Chase) declares him a "low priority" on the donor list. Pops' status can be changed only if Mitch and Sam pay off Farthing's $50,000 gambling debt. To raise the money, they open a "revenge for hire" business, collecting money to help others get even with enemies. Meanwhile, they are hired by a deceitful business tycoon named Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald), who wants them to trash an apartment building he owns. It turns out that one of the tenants is the grandmother of Mitch's new romantic interest, which leads to a series of problems.

I'm not sure why Dirty Work has created such a complicated plot for two reasons: 1.) the plot is neither interesting nor original, and the real humor is in the idea of a revenge-for-hire business, not in this convoluted scenario; and 2.) the movie's plot points are usually glossed over through Mitch's awkward tendency to come on screen and announce key developments that the audience never actually gets to see. And now that I think about it, why does the bad guy have to be another generic business tycoon? These guys are usually portrayed as villains in the movies. I always find it ironic that something as profitable as the motion picture industry is so contemptuous of big business.

In a way, though, I suspect that the crooked tycoon plot is really part of the joke, as if MacDonald knows people won't pay attention to it when the real focus is his comedy. I have to admit that there were enough laughs in Dirty Work that I could overlook the lame story to a reasonable degree. MacDonald's humor is based on saying something normal, then suddenly dropping in something scandalous or inappropriate. For example, when confronted with an angry girlfriend, Mitch tries to placate her by saying, "Maybe you'll feel better after we have some dirty sex!" The comedian has always had a fondness for jokes about crack, prostitutes, and prison rape (all of which are in ample supply here). And yet he manages to keep from being offensive through the sheer truthfulness of his remarks; he says things that a lot of people wish they had the guts to say.

Some of the revenge schemes are pretty funny, too (although a lot of them seem to involve dead fish). There's a side-splitting flashback as a childhood Mitch gets revenge on a perverted crossing guard. Another scene, in which a cherry bomb explodes in an occupied toilet, gave me one of the biggest laughs I've had in a while (sure, it's juvenile, but it's still a killer sight gag). I also laughed at MacDonald's famous "note to self" bit in which he dictates crucial information into a cassette recorder ("Note to self," Mitch says at one point, "having sex with blow-up doll is not as much fun as it seems.").

Dirty Work was directed by Bob Saget (yes, that Bob Saget) who keeps the film down to a reasonable 80 minute length. There are funny supporting performances from Chase (the funniest man alive, in my opinion) and Don Rickles, who delivers a cameo that can only be called Ricklesian. But here's a major complaint: despite the casting of Rickles and Chase, they are not given a single scene together. What a wasted opportunity! Also on board are the late Chris Farley (playing a guy with a most unusual flesh wound) and Adam Sandler (as the devil).

I debated long and hard as to whether or not I should recommend Dirty Work. On the one hand, it's not a very good movie; the romance is unconvincing, the bad guy is a crashing bore, and the plot is the sort of Hollywood pap MacDonald should be making fun of, not participating in. On the other hand, the antics of MacDonald, Chase, and Rickles cracked me up. I laughed at this movie frequently. So I'm going to do something I've never done before: I'm going to categorize my review. If, like me, you are a fan of Norm MacDonald, I recommend Dirty Work. You won't be blown away by the lame plot, but odds are you'll laugh anyway. If you are not a fan, make a note to yourself to stay away.

( 1/2 out of four)