One’s white, one’s black; one’s tall, one’s not; one’s an ad exec at the end of his rope because he thinks his wife is having an affair, the other’s an unemployed family man at the end of his rope who bungles his first carjacking by picking on the ad exec in the first place. In Nothing to Lose (Touchstone), writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) puts Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence together in a classic mismatched-buddies-on-the-road situation and comes up with something much sharper and funnier than what you might have expected from a meandering, racist, formulaic comedy starring the high-minded director of Dead Man Walking and the angry star of A Thin Line Between Love and Hate.
In fact, considering the dramatis personae, Oedekerk does bloody wonders: He takes two performers who often project keep-away vibes and loosens them up with a script that makes comedic use of their own harshest characteristics. With his highfalutin earnestness and gangly presence, Robbins’ slapstick antics appear all the blithely sillier. Meanwhile, up against Robbins’ apoplectic White Man Walking bulk, Lawrence actually softens, while keeping enough of the apoplectic Black Man Riffing thing so that you know you’ve got Martin Lawrence in the frame. (He’s a carjacker but actually a nice guy with a talent for electronics, by the way.) The result: The two actors seem palpably jazzed by each other’s outsize company.
The same, however, cannot be said of the supporting cast, who, stuck in cartoon roles, exhibit all the subtlety of water balloons. John C. McGinley (The Rock) and Giancarlo Esposito (The Usual Suspects) overact as a couple of meanly demented, violent criminals; Jerry Maguire’s Kelly Preston makes a perfunctory appearance as the adman’s wife; Dream On’s Michael McKean does another one of his sharky-boss turns; and Irma P. Hall (A Family Thing) actually slaps folks upside the head as Lawrence’s mother. (What? No rolling pin?) The most effective hamming comes from Oedekerk himself, who, in a cameo as a disco-dancing night watchman, performs an extended American Bandstand segment not available in your usual salt-and-pepper buddy picture. B-