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BOYS WILL BE BANK ROBBERS
A NOSTALGIC SLACKER VIEW OF THE BAD OLD DAYS

IT'S WORTH putting up with "The Newton Boys" just to get to the final credit roll. To the left of the credits, you get two very real and absolutely delightful splotches of late-life interviews with the two most famous Newton Boys -- brother Willis, the brains of the outfit and feisty as hell in a documentary, and Jess, the charmer of the bunch, recounting their exploits on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." If you have forgotten how suave Carson could be interviewing an octogenarian who had been, in the early '20s, one of the best-known bank robbers of his time, the final sequence here will remind you.

It's as if the whole mediocre film before that were a warm-up to two utterly delightful videotapes of some happy old geezers who had once been the scourge of American law enforcement.

The Newton Boys, we are told before Richard Linklater's film even begins, were the most successful bank robbers in American history. In other words, they deserve a film.

And boy, is Linklater not the fellow to write and direct it. It's not hard to figure what he's doing here -- a sort of neo-"Bonnie and Clyde" number about robbery as an honorable middle-American protest against financial plutocrats, complete with blister-fingered banjo picking in the soundtrack.

But the man who directed "Slacker" (thereby putting the word into the language), "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise" and "Suburbia" just wasn't the guy for the job. The comedy is never quite funny enough, the drama is never dramatic enough. It's the raucous and jolly tale of the Newton boys as told by someone who seems a bit dazed and confused about why he's doing it. I know it's unfair to say so, but it looks like nostalgic Americana slacker-style -- a hard-working attempt to make a movie that he'd rather see by someone else on cable TV. Maybe even a movie -- oh, you know -- Dad would like.

Well, Dad's going to have to work hard himself to get past the boy-worship that's the newest disconcerting phase in American movies in the Leonardo DiCaprio/Demi Moore era. The stars of "The Newton Boys" aren't technically boys, I know, but there isn't one of them who wouldn't give you giggle-fits if they told you in a dark alley to "stick 'em up."

Matthew McConaughey plays Willis, the eldest and smartest (whose pseudonym is occasionally Willis Reed, not to be confused with the fabled center of the New York Knicks in their best era). Ethan Hawke plays wild boy Jess, forever getting loaded and trying to spark the ladies. Skeet Ulrich plays the serious one. Vincent D'Onofrio -- far and away the best actor in the bunch -- plays the beefy one with the fewest lines and the bloodiest makeup when he's shot in a train robbery gone awry. Country singer Dwight Yoakam plays their buddy, the nitro man with ulcers. Sans hat, Yoakam's hairline can be seen, plain as day, hovering somewhere around the Arctic Circle.

Twenty-five years ago Bruce Dern and a miscellaneous Carradine would have been in it, and it would have been a lot better. I must confess, though, that I admire McConaughey for continuing to flee from his pretty-boy image.

A few women provide easy distractions. "ER's" Julianna Margulies pairs up with McConaughey to deliver one of those knocks on the provinces that are the mark of hopeless provincials everywhere. ("What's there to do in Omaha?" is his pickup line. "You can chew gum," she answers.)

It isn't much, really, just a two-hour warm-up for its final sequence where a couple of the real Newton boys, as geezers, sit in front of TV cameras and give all those Hollywood squiffs what-for.

MOVIE
The Newton Boys

Rating:*** Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke as the '20s' most suc cessful bank robbers. With Ju lianna Margulies. Co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.