Archive for November 25, 1998

Very Bad Things

November 25, 1998

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.

A Bug’s Life

November 25, 1998

01phim-2Perhaps A Bug’s Life would play better if if hadn’t come so soon after Antz, but not much better. Though the films were clearly developed and made around the same time, this Disney/Pixar animated feature almost feels like a copy of the earlier DreamWorks movie. A Bug’s Life has the same wisecracking dialogue, the same basic plot (a wimpy ant helps his colony defeat a vicious tyrant, though here the villain is a grasshopper instead of a military ant), a similar look, a comparable theme (in both, an evil character says something like “Ideas are dangerous”), even some of the same gags. And, like Antz, this film doesn’t even have musical numbers — a surprising departure for Disney animated movies.

The problem is that, even if Antz didn’t exist, A Bug’s Life would still be eye-catching but immediately forgettable. This is the second feature by John Lasseter, who directed Disney/Pixar’s wildly popular Toy Story, which left me cold. Halfway through A Bug’s Life, I began to yearn for the relative simplicity of Toy Story. The movie is always teeming with movement and color, but you never quite forget that the insect heroes are ready-made toys. The characters in Antz were like wiry action figures; the Bug’s Life menagerie are more like Beanie Babies.

The hero is Flik (voice by Dave Foley), a dreamer whose schemes don’t impress his fellow ants, who are too busy gathering food for seasonal offerings to the fascistic grasshoppers. Led by the malicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey, whose voice work here lacks his usual deadpan cool), the grasshoppers have terrorized the ants into keeping them well-fed. Flik has an idea: He’ll leave the colony and search for bigger bugs to help the ants fight their oppressors. He finds a group of rowdy critters he thinks are warrior bugs, but are actually circus performers: a black widow (Bonnie Hunt), a macho ladybug (Denis Leary, not as funny as you’d expect), a plump and bumbling caterpillar (Joe Ranft), and so on.

What follows is all very cutesy and lightweight, without the verbal wit of Antz or the visual splendor of James and the Giant Peach. The landscapes, framed in ostentatious widescreen (for a movie about bugs?), are exquisitely detailed, and a few of the touches have comic ingenuity. But again, as with Toy Story, I felt both locked out of the narrative and locked inside the claustrophobic, untouched-by-human-hands look of the movie. John Lasseter doesn’t really create a world and let you enter it. He programs a world and then surrounds you with it, aggressively.

The plot, involving the creation of a fake bird meant to scare the grasshoppers away, leads nowhere. It’s as if the moviemakers needed a way to get the other ants involved in their own destiny — otherwise this is a movie about characters who can’t handle their problems and have to recruit outside forces. (Nobody points out that, having been scared off, the grasshoppers will probably come back again.) A Bug’s Life doesn’t merit much enthusiasm or indignation; it just skitters across your consciousness, leaving no traces except a vague depression. A lot of people put in a lot of hours on this, and for what? The movie will certainly sell toys and hamburgers, but it won’t endure as a work of fantasy. For that, it needs a vision that extends beyond the Disney boardroom.