I have this theory that on the set of 1991's Father of the Bride, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton turned to each other and said, "You know what? From here on out, let's just keep doing this. Let's just play cute, cuddly versions of our formerly edgy and interesting selves -- slightly goofy mothers and fathers, that kind of thing -- and watch the cash roll in!" Then they high-fived and fell into an awkward, melancholy silence.

Through one unchallenging project after another, Keaton has served up the same old eye rolls, squeals, and stutters until you can't really tell one role from another. And what's really frustrating about watching her squander her talents is that -- as with Martin -- no matter how embarrassing the performance, you can't help but love her anyway. She's at her most unhinged in Mad Money, and painful as it is to watch at times, she does -- just barely -- manage to keep the film afloat.

Keaton plays a wealthy wife whose husband (a typically strong Ted Danson) loses his job, sending the couple into a spiral of debt and repossession. So Keaton takes work as a janitor at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. (This is a highly unbelievable development, and if you hope to get any enjoyment out of Mad Money, you'd better just accept it, along with all of the other highly unbelievable developments to come.) When money at the bank gets too old and worn out, it gets shredded. Keaton concocts a plan to intercept that money before it gets cut up. It's a difficult to trace and pretty much victimless crime (unless you count damaging the U.S. economy, but it's pretty much screwed already, no?).

To help in her caper, Keaton recruits Queen Latifah, as a Sassy Single Mother™, and Katie Holmes, as a Zany Free Spirit™. I realize I'm not telling you much about the characters, but that's as much thought as the screenwriter -- Glenn Gers -- put into them. Oh, and they're given one additional trait apiece -- Latifah hasn't had sex in seven years, and Holmes can't believe Latifah hasn't had sex in seven years. The actresses do what they can with extremely underwritten roles. Latifah grounds the film by playing it straight and being -- as in every movie she's made -- tough n' sassy. Holmes' personal life has taken the focus off of her acting, but I've always found her to be a highly charming screen presence. She goes quite a bit broader here than normal, relying heavily on those big eyes, and the performance works. If her choice of spouse doesn't wind up getting her whisked away to an alien galaxy, she might have a future as a comedienne.

The film's premise is a solid one, and the old "good people are capable of terrible things" plot has served great dramas for decades. But instead of playing as A Simple Plan or Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with jokes, Mad Money plays more like a less funny version of the Jim Carrey Fun with Dick and Jane (a movie that wasn't exactly uproarious to begin with). A huge portion of Americans (myself included!) are desperate for money, and eager to relate to and laugh with characters in similar situations. But, as in Dick and Jane, the really interesting stuff a movie like this lends itself to beautifully -- moral questions, explorations of poverty, the economy, corporate criminals, etc -- are all barely touched upon or brushed aside in favor of formulaic punchlines and tired slapstick.

A lot of the blame here must go to Gers, who wrote last year's entertaining legal potboiler, Fracture. Maybe he should stick to the thrillers -- the low-key heist set-up of Mad Money really does feel fresh. But everything else in the script -- particularly the laugh count, which by my calculations totaled zero -- comes up mighty short. Don't get me started on the wildly overdone device of having the film start with the criminals already captured, the characters narrating from the interrogation room. Good call -- take a movie with no suspense and make it even less exciting by telling us the ending right up front!

Calle Khouri (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) directs, with very little spice. It's a lot of point and shoot, and the film looks about as bland as a mayonnaise sandwich on a paper plate. Khouri won the Academy Award for her Thelma and Louise screenplay, it's a shame she couldn't get some of that film's wonderful female characterization up on the screen here. Keaton deserves better than having to run around twitching and spazzing for laughs. If only she hadn't had that imaginary conversation with Steve Martin...

Let me put it to you like this, if you pay to see Mad Money, you'll be mad you spent the money.