I am genuinely worried for Bruce Willis and John Goodman. Does someone have blackmail material on them? Have they suddenly lost their minds? Have they fallen victim to an ancient curse that impairs judgment so as to make bad ideas seem like good ones? These are the only explanations I can think of as to why these two well-known and prestigious actors would take part in something as base and pathetic as Once Upon A Time In Venice, a film so incompetent aiming to take part in one of the most notoriously difficult subgenres to realize onscreen that it’s hard to imagine a world where a known actor with decades of experience would willingly sign up for it.
The titular Venice isn’t the Italian city, but rather Venice Beach, Florida doing its best impression of a California neo-noir. Willis plays Steve Ford, the city’s only private detective, and he’s constantly getting into scrapes with local gang leaders and crime lords. How do we know this? Because the film literally spends the first thirty minutes of its runtime introducing characters who may or may not be important to the film’s events, including his surf shop owner best friend (Goodman), his intern assistant (Thomas Middleditch), a local gang leader (Jason Mamoa), his innocent teenage niece (Emily Robinson), and a shady realtor with the oh-so-clever name Lew the Jew (Adam Goldberg).
What you may notice here is a lack of actual plot driving events, and that’s because calling Once Upon A Time In Venice plotless would be a disservice to plotless films that actually have a purpose for existing. At first it appears that the central mystery revolves around a graffiti artist lewdly painting Lew the Jew’s on-the-market condominium building, but Steve quickly passes that off to his assistant for a B-plot that never actually ties back to Steve short of him stepping in to resolve it. Steve, meanwhile, tracks his niece’s missing dog after he is stolen by a local gang, and he bumbles around town on fetch quests for money and cocaine so that we’re introduced to more extraneous characters who are less entertaining diversions than contrivances to push the film from Point A to a dozen other points before Point B.
Stuff happens in Venice, but it never feels like it’s building toward anything, either as a payoff for the setpieces it subjects us to or as a subversion of expected payoff. The whole point of neo-noir films like Inherent Vice and The Nice Guys is that they subvert your expectation of the hardboiled, competent detective by placing the protagonist in a situation that still makes logical sense but the protagonist is too incompetent to understand. Writing duo Mark and Robb Cullen—with Mark in the director’s chair—seem to have forgotten the first part of that equation, simply developing a cast of sketch characters for diversions that range from mildly amusing (Steve skateboarding in the nude) to offensively embittering (an extended sequence where Steve is captured by transgender prostitutes, dressed as a woman, and threatened with castration).
If anything, Once Upon A Time In Venice feels like a parallel universe version of The Big Lebowski, where the Coen Brothers are instead the Cullen Brothers and have significantly less talent for unconventional storytelling. Hell, Goodman’s character is even a Bizarro version of Lebowski’s Walter, mild-mannered anxious support to a driven manic hero rather than the other way around. But whereas The Big Lebowski didn’t feel the need to explain its meandering complexities to its audience, there is literally a scene in Once Upon A Time In Venice where Goodman explains to Willis his character’s arc, which has in no way been demonstrated by either exposition or action up to that point. So to Bruce Willis and John Goodman, I ask this: Who hurt you? Why would you do this to yourselves? Call me. I’m here to listen.