Sour Grapes opens with a prolonged time-lapsed shot of a bowl of grapes going sour and withering to death, announcing itself as a comedy that's going to revel in unpleasantness. The shot foreshadows the film in another way. It's a static, spare image that just sits there, watching the fruit die. And so goes the rest of the film, sitting back, watching events occur with very little comic garnish, until it almost dies. In many cases, this sort of restraint is admirable, but not quite here--comedies that frolic in viciousness are more obligated to deliver big laughs. Someone like Danny DeVito has made a career off such a comic ethos, from Louie DePalma to Ruthless People to directing The War of the Roses, DeVito has turned cruelty into great fun by cutting the pain with a healthy dose of giddy, mischievous, jumping-for-joy glee. Missing from Sour Grapes, for the most part, is the glee. Mean-streak comedies that coast along on a reserved sense of humor risk becoming truly sour and distasteful, because if the film doesn't have much fun with its viciousness, the viciousness won't be much fun. Sour Grapes treads this line very, very carefully. There isn't really a big laugh in the bunch, but the comedy does manage to keep its balance, barely, thanks to an efficient pace and light disposition that keeps the meanness from turning sour.

The biggest savior of the film is its premise, which provides a solid springboard for the cruelty. Two cousins, brain surgeon Evan (Steven Weber) and sneaker-sole designer Richie (Craig Bierko) are the best of friends, and decide to take a trip to Vegas with their girlfriends, to throw some money away at the casino, see a show and enjoy a weekend of 'hotel sex.' During a lull in the vacation, the guys unload a handful of quarters into the slots. Richie, with one quarter left, asks Evan to give him two more, since the machine pays off best with three-quarter bets. Richie's machine, with Evan's quarters, hits the jackpot. Richie is ecstatic at his luck and blissfully collects the money. Evan is not so blissful, and believes the issue of who actually won the money is much trickier than Richie would care to admit. And there it is. Their close relationship breaks down quickly, bitterness and envy take over, and the two best friends begin to take action against each other accordingly.

Larry David, making his feature debut as writer and director, is no stranger to petty behavior. As co-creator and writer of many of the classic episodes of 'Seinfeld,' David specialized in mining laughs out of characters behaving in often despicable ways. To get down to the nitty gritty, Sour Grapes does not have as many laughs in its feature length as any single good episode of 'Seinfeld.' In the early stretches, the film plays pretty uneasily, and it almost seems as if David is going to rely on Bierko's overmannered and often annoying mugging for most of the laughs. When it does settle into its premise and the cruelty begins, David keeps it all oddly muted and reserved. He tries to play it too straight and deadpan, when what it needs is a go-for-broke outlandishness.

Sour Grapes could also have used a more flavorful cast. Weber, who played the scampish brother from the recently retired show 'Wings,' here has to bland it down to play straight man to the more flamboyant Bierko. Bierko, the straight-faced villain in the derided The Long Kiss Goodnight, works a little too hard to push lines that just aren't written as very funny. The supporting players don't do much to support, though Viola Harris as Richie's loyal but grating mother and Orlando Jones as a homeless man at the right place at the right time do well with their small bits.

What Sour Grapes does have in its favor is an anything-can-happen spirit, similar to the spirit that fuels 'Seinfeld,' that keeps it all watchable and, on occasion, fun. The movie asks you to laugh at some pretty awful stuff, which I won't ruin by divulging here. David definitely has guts, but he isn't able to apply much grace to those guts, despite the use of classical music to highlight his gags. It's comedy with an edge, but it's ultimately too soft an edge, and it isn't able to supply the catharsis you'd want after ingesting a few tablespoons of bile.

--David Luty