What happens when a movie becomes self-aware of itself?  This can lead to original ideas and takes on familiar material -- or a glaring self-indulgent mess.  Both of these happen in Seven Psychopaths, a violent comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood writer under pressure to finish his latest screenplay: "Seven Psychopaths."  He's distracted by problems with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), his possible alcoholism, and his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell).  Billy is an out-of-work actor who's a bit hyperactive and wants to help with the screenplay.  He and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) also make money with their "dog borrowing" scheme: They look for rich-looking people walking their dogs, grab up the dog, wait for the owner to offer a reward for their missing dog, then return the dog and collect the reward.

Unfortunately, Billy and Hans grabbed a Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a mobster willing to kill anyone at all to get his dog back.  There's also a mysterious vigilante who kills mobsters and leaves a Jack of Diamonds card behind as his calling card.  There's Myra (Linda Bright Clay), Hans' wife who wants him to get an honest job -- and awaits the results of her cancer tests.  And there's Zachariah (Tom Waits, in a terrific cameo), a man who answered Billy's ad for psychopaths to tell their stories for Marty's screenplay.

Seven Psychopaths combines some good acting with an excess of showy cleverness.  Rockwell is very funny as the friend who never seems to stop talking or interfering, and Harrelson does well in the one-dimensional role of the gangster whose only traits are loving his dog and not caring about violence.  Unfortunately, the screenplay-within-the-movie soon becomes a metafictional device for everything from staging action scenes in movies like this, to critiquing the lack of good roles for women.

Seven Psychopaths is often original and provides more than the standard "simple crime gone awry" formula, but McDonagh lets himself fall into the trap of the screenwriter who writes himself into the story.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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