Some movies become forgotten over the years, and "We're No Angels" is one of them. It's not a great comedy, but it's not a bad one, either. It's far more serious and moralistic than I had ever imagined, and Robert De Niro and Sean Penn essentially run around posing funny faces for the camera throughout, whilst the Catholic religion is used as a structural backdrop. It's a very different sort of role for De Niro, whose comedy is usually a bit more sophisticated. Here he barely talks at all, and when he does, it's usually harsh barking or screaming or frustrated whispers. It's not De Niro's most memorable role but it's certainly an unusual one.
A lot of the movie focuses on mishaps and misconceptions, as all of the movies from this genre do. It bears resemblance to last year's "School of Rock," about a loser who was mistaken for a teacher. This time the loser is equal to a pair of two escaped convicts and the teacher position is likewise that of priests.
The story all begins with Ned (De Niro) and Jimmy (Penn) escaping from a northern jail circa 1930. After heading for the Canadian border, they find themselves pursued by a ruthless jail warden and a town of do-gooders. Luckily for the duo, right before they come to the Canadian border, they are mistaken for two long-lost Catholic priests, Fathers Brown (Penn) and O'Reilly (De Niro). After given an introduction to the area by a fellow priest (Hoyt Axton), they decide to hide out for a while using their new personas. No one would ever suspect a priest, right?
The problem is that Fathers Brown and O'Reilly are supposed to be two of the smartest priests alive, having written a controversial book about the true meaning of the chapter Revelations in the Bible. So you can imagine the fear that Jimmy experiences when he is asked to lead the church in a pray prior to a meal.
Meanwhile, the mandatory romance is inserted into the movie, using Demi Moore's single, rough, over-protective mother as the love angle for De Niro's character. Demi spits out an unconvincing northern accent, as De Niro stares at her a lot with critical eyes and tries to get her into bed. The romance is not necessary but it seems a lot more worthwhile than most of the romances in some of these films.
The movie is one of the most forgotten I have ever seen; I'd never really heard of it prior to purchasing the newly-issued DVD. But I figured De Niro and Penn couldn't be that bad, and I was right.
I think part of the reason so many people like to ignore it is that it doesn't poke fun at religion. It doesn't make the clergymen out to be strange idiots. Rather, it makes the two escaped convicts seem out-of-place in a heartwarming place. The spirituality affects Penn's character, Jimmy, and his final decision on the bridge that separates Canada from America is one that we have sensed was long coming since his fascination in the church grew.
De Niro and Penn have two of the best faces in Hollywood, and a movie like "We're No Angels" uses this to its advantage. Making up for the long gaps of laughter, the director, Neil Jordan, focuses more on his two lead actors and their reactions to situations. Most of the time throughout the film, De Niro shrugs his shoulders a lot and emits low, agreeable groans from his throat in response to questions, while Penn looks confused and bewildered. There's a great scene where an eager-to-please clergyman (John C. Reilly) asks "Father Brown" something about his book, and Penn sort of stares at him for a few moments with searching eyes, trying to find a way out of the situation.
For some reason, the mistaken identities setup has been a long-time fascination for Hollywood. Just look at "Some Like it Hot," "Tootsie," "Nuns on the Run," "Sister Act," "School of Rock," etc. I think it's because we can all relate to a lot of the situations that the characters go through, and a lot of the embarrassment they suffer. We like to watch them ease their way out of dangerous areas and lie through their teeth.
"We're No Angels" is one of the better examples of this formula executed quite well. It's not a terrific movie, but the actors are, and the script by David Mamet comes up with its own occasionally hilarious segments that make the movie uneven, but a lot more fun than you might expect. No, it's not great, but it's just funny -- and sweet -- enough to recommend.