Like many truly challenging movies, Very Bad Things has gotten atrocious reviews. Most critics seem to have seen an entirely different movie from the one I saw; they have misunderstood it, misread it, misrepresented it, and generally just been stupid about it. In approaching the film, they have made two big mistakes, one of which is somewhat understandable, the other inexcusable.
The movie is a pitch-black comedy about a bachelor party gone terribly wrong. Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau), a dispassionate yuppie, is about to marry his pushy fiancée Laura (Cameron Diaz), who has a serious wedding fixation. Before the ceremony, Kyle and a few buddies — the shark-like real-estate agent Robert Boyd (Christian Slater), the uncommunicative mechanic Charles Moore (Leland Orser), and the brothers Adam and Michael Berkow (Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven) — go to Las Vegas for some rip-snorting oats-sowing. The menu includes cocaine and a stripper-prostitute (porn star Kobé Tai, moonlighting under the name Carla Scott) — a recipe for disaster, as it turns out.
Which brings us to the excusable mistake that critics, and you, might make going into Very Bad Things. In its trailer and TV ads, the movie was sold as a zany hipster comedy, along the lines of Grosse Pointe Blank or Pulp Fiction, in which we’re invited to laugh at bloodshed. As written and directed by Peter Berg, though, the movie is considerably darker and grimmer; its tone is probably closer to Happiness than to, say, There’s Something About Mary. People are killed, carved up, and mangled — the film could be called The Vegas Chainsaw Massacre. If we laugh at all, it’s the sort of strangled, disbelieving laughter that’s a natural response to a steadily worsening situation and the protagonists’ desperate actions.
What’s unforgivable, however, is many critics’ assumption that Very Bad Things somehow approves of the events it depicts. Roger Ebert, for instance, managed to state that “the movie is not blatantly racist” while suggesting that it is. Why? Because some of the victims are minorities, and the victimizers are white. Uh … yeah … that’s sort of how it’s been throughout history, hasn’t it? Berg, I think, is consciously placing his white, upper-middle-class men in a situation where they dispatch, and discard, minorities not of their class. What he has in mind, it seems, is a Swiftian satire on white yuppies — it’s American Psycho with five psychos.
Take the Christian Slater character, Robert Boyd. Slater plays him as an update of his J.D. in Heathers, the film Very Bad Things most resembles. Boyd is a fountain of justifications, moral slipperiness, and motivational corporate gibberish. The other four men are easily-led sheep, too worried about saving their own futures to think much about what they’ve done. (You’ll notice that, unlike Ebert, I choose not to give away the entire plot.) Even the bride-to-be Laura is so tunnel-visioned about her wedding that she hardly even cares what her fiancé did in Vegas — or cares to find out. The movie is about how middle-class ambitions can pile up and block your view — it’s about moral blindness, yet it has been reviewed as if it were a cross between Porky’s and Friday the 13th.
Which, on some level, it is: Berg doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of his characters. Even when they start falling apart, shuddering with remorse and self-disgust, Berg keeps his distance (except for a terrific, paranoid bit of business at a gas station). Like a lot of actors turned director, Berg is a fine actor’s director: Daniel Stern hasn’t been this dead-on since maybe Diner, to which this film is almost a horror-movie sequel; Jeremy Piven hits some great, extreme notes near the end. Berg also has a strong command of visual mood, from the garish Vegas night life to the gore-spattered hotel room. That Very Bad Things is nothing like the ads suggest is a pleasant surprise. Everything else in it is unpleasant — as it’s meant to be. Sometimes I wish critics would simply review what’s on the screen, instead of using a movie as an excuse to vent about grievances that have nothing to do with the movie.