‘Safe Men’ (1998): Late-Gen X slackin’ good for a nostalgia hit

The allure of money is irresistible, especially if you’re a ’90s slacker loser.

By Jason Hink

Adults (and I use the term lightly here) of a certain age will recall those laid-back, lazy years of the 1990s—a time when Gen Xers came of age, pressing ahead with lethargic ambition and embracing the academic/media-monikered tag of slacker. it was a time when greed was not good anymore…and any goals for future achievement were seen through slothful eyes (“I don’t want to look like I’m working too hard. That’s soooo not cool.” I remember those days well; I was one of those underachievers.

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And romantic underachieving is alive and well (and abundant!) in Safe Men, the 1998 slacker comedy written and directed by John Hamburg in his directorial debut. Starring Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, and Paul Giamatti, this slice of dorkus ’90s cinema is a reminder of how hard we tried to not take ourselves seriously, even though we thought we were pretty damn smart. To celebrate (low-key, of course; don’t get too excited), Mill Creek Entertainment has released Safe Men on Blu-ray for the first time as a high-definition record for future generations to judge us with.

The story: Sam and Eddie (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn) are two (very) untalented singers trying to pay the bills, looking to someday hit it big…but the cheesy duo is stuck playing their crappy music in crappy venues, unable to muster a single applause from the elderly audience at the retirement home despite the pair’s killer hooks (hehe). Meanwhile, another pair of losers, Frank and Mitchell (Mark Ruffalo and Josh Pais) are also looking for big scores; but they realize it takes a life of crime to achieve the the sweet life—as professional safe crackers.

When a local, low-level mobster named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti) spots Sam and Eddie in a bar after a gig, he chats them up, appealing to their desire for the good life. But what Veal Chop doesn’t realize is that he’s mistaken amateur singing duo Sam and Eddie for professional safe crackers Frank and Mitchell. But who cares if you have no experience in hacking safes (or crime in general); there are thousands of dollars to be had! And when Veal Chop delivers the unsuspecting nerds to his mobster boss, Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner), the boys find themselves with multiple offers they can’t refuse—break in and crack three safes belonging to Big Fat’s enemies…or it’s your life. When the inept criminals attempt to burglarize Big Fat’s nemesis Leo (Harvey Fierstein, having a fun time), Sam finds himself caught between not wanting to die by failing Big Fat, and pleasing Leo’s daughter Hannah (Christina Kirk), who catches the boys during their first break-in attempt of her father’s home.

I was in college in the late 90s the first time I saw Safe Men and I liked it well enough to buy a cheap VHS copy a couple years later from the Blockbuster throwaway used bin, although I don’t think I watched it more than once over the past 20 years. It’s funny how different things resonate with us as time passes; I recall at the time enjoying the sheer goofiness of these losers, getting caught up in their shenanigans as they came off like live-action versions Scooby and Shaggy, curling up in fear anytime danger nears, crying and hugging each other like idiot children when Big Fat Bernie threatens them. The world of the Gen X slacker was in full force by this point—not just in the culture and society, but in our entertainment as well. And these two lovable losers fit the mold, mirroring the 90s male archetype we watched every week in our dorms on TV’s Friends, Seinfeld, and every other sitcom of the era.

Watching Safe Men now, in my mid forties, I can see better why it wasn’t a hit, and why it isn’t well-remembered. It’s not “super hilarious” in the way that director John Hamburg’s (Along Came Polly, I Love You, Man) next assignments—as screenwriter for 2000’s Meet the Parents—was for the whole family; where Meet the Parents is broad in its comedy and character depictions, Safe Men was really only funny to us teens and twenty-somethings who resonated with the young characters and the quirky, deadpan, low-stakes comedy of the time. Watching it today, I laughed more at Michael Lerner’s over-the-top portrayal of Big Fat Bernie. His gruff, mean, old-school manner in which he handles the antagonists and everyone else in his orbit really steals the show for me! Which is interesting because the character didn’t register with me in my early twenties like it does today.

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I suppose your enjoyment of the story and characterizations in Safe Men is a matter of personal taste and how much growing up you’ve done since the days of sitting around playing Sega Genesis, smoking weed, and giggling at the quirky antics of films like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. If that was your jam back in the day and you missed Safe Men, then it’s likely a safe bet for you.

Further enjoyment can be found in the numerous diversions from the central, mistaken-identity plot, such as Sam’s romance with Hannah, which threatens to derail the boys (and Big Fat’s) plans, especially after we find out that one of the real safecrackers is Hannah’s ex; little Bernie Jr.’s (Michael Schmidt) quest of “becoming a man” and surviving his bar mitzvah; Paul Giamatti’s typically nerd-heavy performance, especially funny when he’s trying to act badass in front of Big Fat and the boys; and Peter Dinklage’s small role as a hitman who used to have a thing for pretty girl-next-door Hannah.

According to the limited information I see online, the film had a budget of around $1 million and a box office take of just under $46,000 as most who remember it caught it on the VHS shelves of their local video store (like me). There are no special features on Mill Creek’s barebones Blu-ray, but English subtitles are included (too bad the old 2006 Universal DVD commentary with director John Hamburg couldn’t be ported over). As a flashback to an era and a flavor of film you don’t see anymore, there’s enough cultural nostalgia for viewers of a certain age to enjoy Safe Men.

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