Rule #73 in Rob’s Book of Movie Laws: Christopher Walken makes any film worth seeing. Following this rule, I’ve sat through some pretty lame films (The Prophecy, Last Man Standing, The Funeral), so I knew to scale down my expectations for Excess Baggage, in which he plays a supporting role as the concerned “uncle” (i.e., friend of the family) of Alicia Silverstone. I was happy to discover that the movie, after a bumpy start, turns into a good little comedy with a string of winning performances besides Walken’s. But for me, the best moment in the film is still the scene in a diner, when Walken says, in his incomparable Queens diction, “Go get yaself a waffle.” See, I’m so easy to please.
The movie itself benefits from low expectations; it’s the sort of off-center, wannabe-Something Wild comedy that critics have little patience for. Silverstone (also the co-producer) is Emily Hope, a bored Seattle teen who enjoys getting herself in trouble just to get the attention of her businessman dad (Jack Thompson). The rather gimmicky premise is that she’s faked her own kidnapping and locked herself in her car trunk, waiting to be found and fussed over. What Emily doesn’t count on is Vincent (Benicio Del Toro), a car thief who slips into Emily’s car and takes off with her still in the trunk.
Vincent is one of those good-bad boys popular in romances pitched at teen girls: a gentle outlaw, a soulful thief who’s saving up his ill-gotten gains to open a karaoke club in Brazil. With a bland pretty-boy as Vincent, Excess Baggage would collapse into trivial mush. But Benicio Del Toro, who was the hilariously befuddled Fenster in The Usual Suspects, has an oddly casual rhythm all his own — as if he’s mildly surprised that he’s in a movie — and Silverstone, who starts off bratty, relaxes around him. When these two talk, they share a strange but pleasant vibe. On the run from various people (her father, her “uncle,” some guys chasing Vincent), they fall sideways into love.
None of which may sound all that exciting or original. But the movie has a satisfying realistic tone. Director Marco Brambilla, whose only previous film was Demolition Man, has a feel for the muted blues and grays of Seattle, and he’s good at the contrast between the sterile mansion Emily is fleeing and the rumpled, homey motels where she and Vincent hide out. Brambilla shows an appreciative, Jonathan Demme-like touch with diners and warehouses, which feel like real places where real people work, not just locations. (Sitting in a diner, Walken looks around and is impressed: “This is classic Americana.” Not every comedy stops to smell the roses that way.)
Aside from that, Excess Baggage offers rich supporting performances. Sally Kirkland turns up as a waitress with her own album of songs for sale at the counter (Walken buys a CD and a tape, not as a plot device — as I expected — but because he loves the songs). The always agreeable Harry Connick, Jr. is Vincent’s partner in crime, who’s in way over his head. Nicholas Turturro, in his funny-crazy Federal Hill mode, scores some laughs as one of the guys chasing Vincent. But really the best reason to see it, as I said, is to hear Christopher Walken say “Yes. I’m gonna give my car keys to a car thief.”