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Slapstick comedy, in particular the art of the sight gag, is all but lost in American movies these days, though the work of two filmmakers in recent years has offered promise - the fantasy "Night of the Comet" and the Sherlock Holmes farce "Without a Clue" by Thom Eberhardt and several French comedies by Francis Veber ("The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," "Les Comperes," "La Chevre," etc.).

But both suffer drastically lowered standards with their latest efforts, the long-on-the-shelf "Out On a Limb," Veber's second American outing (after "Three Fugitives"), and Eberhardt's dismal "Captain Ron."- "OUT ON A LIMB" does offer some hearty laughs in a story not dissimilar to "Doc Hollywood." But it has several underdeveloped plot points and characters and simply cannot sustain its momentum.

Matthew Broderick is perfect as a button-down yuppie, a wheeler-dealer whose troubles begin when he heads for the rural town of Buzzsaw, where his mother has settled after marrying a mysterious man with a past (Jeffrey Jones).

The main plot has Broderick's crime-story obsessed younger sister (bright and charming CourtneyPeldon), who has cried wolf a few times too many, witnessing that their stepfather has been replaced by his evil twin (also played by Jones). No one believes her, of course.

A lot of the film's gags are built around the local eccentrics Broderick encounters, including a pair of idiot brothers, both named Jim (John C. Reilly and Michael Monks), who live deep in the woods and may remind you of Larry, Darryl and Darryl from the old "Newhart" show; a young woman (Heidi Kling) on the run, who steals Broderick's car; and two local cops, both confused about everything that's going on.

At its worst, things really get desperate when a bear sneaks up behind Broderick and Kling. But there are some hilarious set pieces here, as when Jones the evil twin pretends to be his brother, confusing names and events with the family, and just about every scene with Reilly and Monks. The funniest bit, however, is two kids who are childhood versions of movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel - especially the "Ebert" kid, a dead-on ringer.

Veber's direction does squeeze some big laughs from the first-time screenplay by Daniel and Joshua Goldin (who are twin brothers) and that's enough for a moderate recommendation.

"Out On a Limb" is rated PG for violence, profanity and nudity (Broderick, who is left in the woods without his clothes when his car is stolen).

- "CAPTAIN RON" is a real mess. What few laughs it gets come from Kurt Russell as the title character, a drunken seafaring bum complete with dreadlocks, scruffy beard and eyepatch. (He seems to be doing a parody of his "Escape From New York" character, right down to the gravelly voice.)

Surprisingly, Martin Short offers none of the comic energy he's managed to bring to even his weakest comedies in the past. He seems to be merely going through the motions and the film suffers as a result.

The story has a suburban Chicago couple (Short and Mary Kay Place) inheriting a "yacht," which they have to pick up in the Caribbean. Their intention is to sell it, but their unenthusiastic broker (unbilled Paul Anka) offers little help when he hires a local sailor to help them bring it in.

The boat, naturally, is a bedraggled tub and the sailor isn't any better - Russell, who ogles Short's 16-year-old daughter, fondles Short's wife and teaches their young son how to drink and gamble.

A little of this goes a long way, but Eberhardt (who co-wrote and directed) milks it from every angle as they all cruise the West Indies together in their dilapidated vessel, running into bad guys along the way.

"Captain Ron" is rated PG-13 for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.