Sleazy slapstick

Trixie a witless mishmash of cliches

Opens July 21

Trixie Zurbo (Emily Watson) is a woman gunning for a professional break. She reads Police Investigator on the bus and comes from a long line of Chicago cops. But the closest Trixie ever gets to a "case" is foiling a teenage shoplifter while working as a drug store security guard. Director Alan Rudolph has made Trixie a flake to end all flakes — a wannabe cop who instead, labors in the polyester ranks of the security racket. With her wide-eyed baby blues and tweetie-pie voice, Trixie suggests one of the dingbat molls who populated '30s gangster films. Her speech is a confounding whirl of mixed metaphors, "your life has gone to hell in a handbag," and "you are not drinking yourself into Bolivia," all delivered out of a perpetually gum-smacking puss. Trixie, in other words, lives up to her fluffy, lowbrow name.

But the featherweight wannabe-sleuth finally gets her big break when she's offered a job as an undercover security guard at a lakeside casino. There Trixie meets a slick backwater cowboy, Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney), a fellow fruitcake with mutton chop sideburns and a sexy swagger. Dex trolls the casino looking for fresh female meat when he isn't acting as toady for flashy, corrupt land developer Red Rafferty (Will Patton).

A questionable spin on film noir, in which a relative innocent stumbles upon a hive of corruption, Trixie takes that formula and injects it with a megaton of helium that sends it soaring into the stratosphere. Trixie is the innocent in question (though in a film where everyone is one brick shy of a load, stupidity is relative) who uncovers through Dex, an elaborate sex scandal involving Red, his nympho singer girlfriend Dawn Sloane (Lesley Ann Warren) and hound dog Sen. Drummond Avery (Nick Nolte), an unctuous ladies man with an orange tan and dyed white hair that make him look like a gigolo gone to seed.

Piqued by a chance at sin-sleuthing, Trixie is soon wielding a notebook and asking her typically half-baked questions ("Do you know any family that she might be related to?"), sniffing for clues and conducting her own peculiarly oddball, scattershot investigation. And thanks to Trixie's concentric circles of inquiry and fuzzy logic, the plot is as maddening as a stubbed toe. But whereas in crime pics like The Big Sleep you yearn for some answers, Trixie will leave most with an ache to simply make it out of the theater without self-inflicted injury.

Striving to do with Trixie's malapropism-rich dialogue what Francis Ford Coppola did with set design in One From the Heart, Trixie is artificial and stylized to its core. Its cast of dimwits, sluts, sadists and absurdly on-the-make congressmen salivating over every skirt that passes look like the caricatured denizens of a lurid nighttime soap. Rudolph's outsize characters are tired and overdone — the mixed-up patterns and bad toupee of thug Red or the Barbie-meets-Times Square wardrobe of casino teen hooker Ruby Pearli (Brittany Murphy), who asks Trixie, "Want a lollipop ... a tampon?" are the kind of crass, kitschy types you'd expect to find on a bottom-of-the-barrel sitcom.

Trixie feels like a failed experiment in meta-noir with an ambiance of carbonated idiocy whose bubbles soon dissipate. Too quickly into all the strained wackiness, Trixie's tongue-tied locution loses its charm and your brain checks out.

Perhaps with an appropriately wacked indie perspective along the lines of Tom DiCillo, Trixie might have found a director able to enliven its fruity material. But as Trixie's plot moves from slapstick to sleaze in the blink of an eye, Rudolph gives Trixie an increasingly inappropriate straight treatment. The film grows more and more serious and actually begins to give a damn as the lame-brain whodunit plot thickens. It's a strategy that threatens to sink this already water-logged vessel, like weighing down the Good Ship Lollipop with a cargo of illegal immigrants.