Rarely (and I do mean rarely) do actor's personal vanity projects come to life in a way that audiences fully appreciate. I don't think that's so much the fault of the actor, per se; rather, I tend to believe it's because - with all of the creative people involved in front of and behind the camera - it's gets increasingly difficult for the actor to translate the full value of that vision into a completed project. In other words, what I find funny in my mind may not inevitably equate to big laughs when it's completed and put up on the silver screen because an awful lot of hands get to handle it before that happens. In the interim, tiny slivers of artistic intent as well as content get chipped away, and the end result probably ends up being something like the tepid VENUS & VEGAS, finally out on DVD since completion in 2010 from RLJ Entertainment.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come', then read on ...)
Three long-time Vegas friends - Stu (played by Donald Faison), Alex (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Eric (Eddie Guerra) - are more than just platonic acquaintances: they're house thieves looking for their next big score. When they stumble across old-school gangster Frank Santino (Jon Polito) running a scam with counterfeit poker chips out of a rural warehouse, they believe they've found the perfect score: all they need to do is get in, steal the chips, and then cash them in at the casinos for some easy cash. But when the heist goes bad and one of their own gets caught and captured red-handed, they'll take their own hostage in hopes of eventually offering up an exchange while keeping the cash.
VENUS & VEGAS is the kind of flick that had real potential but it was never quite realized in the completed product. Demian Lichtenstein directs from a script by lead Eddie Guerra himself, and maybe the two of them were simply too close to the material to understand that the chemistry needed to pull off a `caper' flick never surfaced. Instead, the players move from one predictable set piece to another, all the while aping and mugging for the camera as though they were delivering big laughs. Instead, what audiences get are a handful of watchable sight gags along with some TV-grade acting from a wealth of recognizable faces.
To their credit, they try to make use of some bona fide talent. Jaime Pressly (from MY NAME IS EARL) does the best she can in splitting her time and relationship woes between Eric and mobster Bruno (Abraham Benrubi, who does the best he can to pull off an Italian accent). Roselyn Sanchez tries hard to muster some big-screen chemistry with Faison, but, unfortunately, her scenes are so brief and ineffectual one even wonders why she agreed to the picture. FEAR FACTOR's Joe Rogan gave his short scene all he was worth, and he manages to inject a bit of welcome irony and sarcasm into his good-friend, bad-friend relationship with Faison. Even Florence Henderson drops her BRADY BUNCH personae to play a Vegas bad-girl grandma with an insatiable sexual appetite and a desire to do bad things.
The chief problem I had with it is that Guerra's script is incredibly uneven. At times, VENUS felt like it was intended to be a piece of family entertainment, something that might air on a cable channel in relative obscurity but retain the chance (however slim) of finding a respectable TV audience. At other times, it tried to approach the bawdiness so common with other big screen films lately - THE HANGOVER trilogy and BRIDESMAIDS come to mind - but Guerra really missed the chief ingredient that makes those films work: chemistry. No one has any here when, at least, the men should as they've apparently been hanging together for over a decade. Their relationships felt rote, not natural but the creation of a Hollywood script, and, as such, they failed to convince this reviewer.
Alas, this one wasn't meant to be.
VENUS & VEGAS is produced by PasoFino Productions and Luis Moro Productions. DVD distribution is being handled through RLJ Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, this film looks and sounds very solid consistently. As for the special features, there's a brief `behind-the-scenes' featurette and the theatrical trailer, but that's nothing to phone mama Brady about!
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. Just because so much of VENUS & VEGAS wasn't for me, that doesn't mean you folks won't find it of value. Based on the trailer alone, I honestly expected more. What I took away from it makes me better understand why this one waited so long to `street' on DVD.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD copy of VENUS & VEGAS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.