Revenge as a theme for film comedy is time-honored, going back at least as far as Mack Sennett's two-reelers, in which custard-pie throwing evened many a score. Dirty Work, toplining erstwhile 'Saturday Night Live' performer Norm Macdonald, attempts to carry on the comedic-vengeance tradition, with arguably mixed results.

Macdonald plays Mitch, a wise-cracking layabout who has been fired from 14 jobs in the past three months and doesn't care who knows it. Mitch's best friend, Sam (Artie Lange), is a fellow idler, still living with his father, Pops (Jack Warden), a blustery old man obsessed with sex and his inability to have any. Lest we miss the point, Pops is revealed to be an avid reader of a magazine called Impotent Old Men and Whores.

When Pops suffers a heart attack, Dr. Farthing, a compulsive gambler played slyly by Chevy Chase, suggests that Sam come up with $50,000 for a heart transplant. Coincidentally, that's the amount Farthing owes to local loan sharks, who are prepared to shoot off his toes for non-payment. Mitch and Sam decide to raise the money by opening a revenge-based enterprise called Dirty Work Inc., to settle scores at affordable rates.

Mitch and Sam's retaliatory tactics are based on the axiom, 'Don't take any crap from anybody,' and range from planting dead fish in somebody's home to turning skunks loose at an opera house performance of Don Giovanni. The novice entrepreneurs also arrange for local prostitutes to pose as corpses in the car trunks of an automobile dealer who happens to be doing a live TV commercial.

If the humor of Dirty Work doesn't exactly recall the wit of Noel Coward, it nonetheless connects with Macdonald's 'Saturday Night Live' persona, that of a cheerful but caustic observer of life's absurdities. Macdonald even recycles his anchorman's 'Note to self' routine, pointing out, in a confidential aside to his tape recorder, that 'no matter how bad life gets, there's always beer.'

Along with Chevy Chase, there are further connections to 'Saturday Night Live' via cameos by Adam Sandler and by the late Chris Farley as a barfly whose 'nose was bit off by a Saigon whore.' Women don't fare too well in terms of political correctness here, even if Traylor Howard is sympathetic as a local who befriends Mitch, perhaps against her better judgment.

Macdonald combines a deadpan delivery and a self-mocking egotism to fashion a credible character whose revenge-for-hire scheme varies from vicious to idealistic. More down-to-earth but no less amusing is Don Rickles as a dictatorial movie theatre manager who berates an overweight ice cream-eating employee by shrieking: 'I got a call from Baskin-Robbins. They're down to five flavors!'

Dirty Work wasn't screened for critics prior to its national opening-not always a good sign-but, on a rainy afternoon in midtown Manhattan, a sparse audience seemed to be enjoying it, particularly a cluster of youngsters, mostly boys, who laughed heartily at each vicious comeuppance.

--Ed Kelleher