Archive for July 1999

Deep Blue Sea

July 28, 1999

A case can be made for cheese that does what it’s supposed to do. I can’t imagine wanting to see Deep Blue Sea again, but as a one-time-only, low-expectation, Sunday-afternoon diversion, it kept me amused. The movie, as you may have gathered, is about superfast, supersmart sharks. Think how long it’s been since you saw a shark-attack movie; I mean, this subgenre didn’t deserve to end with Jaws: The Revenge. Right from the start, when a comely young woman dips her foot into the dark ocean and we get one of those ominous shark’s-eye views of the wiggling tootsies, I settled in cheerfully for an $80 million Roger Corman movie. About the only thing missing is gratuitous T & A, though there is a moment when a female character strips down to her bra and panties in the midst of a particularly stressful shark encounter. This same woman also gets to deliver dialogue like “She may be the world’s smartest animal, but she’s still an animal.” Movies like Deep Blue Sea just make me irrationally happy, and I smiled all the way through it; it brought out the part of me that likes beer, pizza, and drive-in movies.

Somewhere out in the middle of the ocean, a crew of scientists led by Saffron Burrows (the one who so obligingly strips) is making sharks’ brains bigger so they can find a cure for Alzheimer’s. One wonders why they didn’t opt to enlarge the brain of a relatively harmless animal like a kitten (perhaps because nobody would go see an $80 million summer movie about superfast, supersmart kittens on the rampage). It hardly even matters why they’re messing around with sharks; we just want to get to the part where the sharks start using their superior IQs, which apparently enable them to bash through steel doors (didn’t I read somewhere that the most sensitive part of a shark is its nose?) and leap out of the water like Shamu to eat someone who’s in the middle of a dreary monologue.

The cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, fast becoming the new Michael Caine, as the moneybags who’s financing the experiments; Thomas Jane (the jittery would-be drug dealer in Boogie Nights) as a shark wrangler so macho he grabs hold of a Mako’s fin and rides the critter like a bronco; LL Cool J as a cook who’s so certain he’s going to die (he must be a horror-movie fan who knows the rule that black characters usually die first) that he’s one of the few characters you figure is going to live; and Michael Rapaport, the movie’s designated Guy Who Just Wants to Get the Fuck Outta Here. They mostly take a back seat to the real stars — the computer-generated sharks who move like lightning through the black water, occasionally grabbing an understandably dismayed person and playing “Make a Wish.” If the comparatively low-tech Jaws movies left you wondering exactly what a human being might look like when being gnawed to pieces by a pair of razor-toothed sharks, Deep Blue Sea has the answer.

The movie is a coarse ’90s version of Jaws, and you may miss the suspense and virtuosity that resulted from Steven Spielberg’s not really having a shark that worked properly; he was forced to reveal his monster in bits and pieces, whereas Renny Harlin, who does the honors here, has sharks that can convincingly swim right up and devour people (the victims are also computer-generated). If you wanted to be grouchy about it, you could use Deep Blue Sea as a textbook example of how special effects have killed any sense of mystery at the movies (actually, Exhibit A should be 1999’s The Haunting), but I don’t quite have the heart to be grouchy about it. There’s a darkly funny, Starship Troopers-ish sadism to the sharks, who are relentlessly in your face; if they see you, chomp, game over, man.

Renny Harlin is a top-notch assembler of B movies with A budgets — I enjoyed his Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight far more than I probably should’ve — and he works with efficiency and purpose. You’re in and out in 100 minutes, you see what you came to see, and you forget it half an hour later. But what the hell. To paraphrase Saffron Burrows, it may not be the world’s smartest shark movie, but it’s still a shark movie.

Drop Dead Gorgeous

July 23, 1999

Aside from those involved, does anyone really take beauty pageants seriously? It takes no particular courage to spoof a subject that most people find ridiculous anyway; great satires like Dr. Strangelove or Citizen Ruth find ways to make you laugh at things (nuclear war, abortion) you never dreamed could be funny. In Drop Dead Gorgeous (the title seems to be searching for a comma), the glittering teenage girls pose and dance, their teeth shiny from the Vaseline smeared on them. The Vaseline is a nice detail — beauty queens do actually do that — and I wonder what might have happened if the screenwriter, Lona Williams, herself a former beauty-pageant contestant, had stuck to the absurd nuts and bolts of what it takes to win these things. I think, in fact, a straight documentary about a beauty pageant might be funnier than this sometimes cartoonish mockumentary.

Not that the movie isn’t funny. It has its moments — it’s just that very few of them have much to do with the subject. We’re in Mount Rose, Minnesota, where people say “Yah” and “You betcha” just like the people in Fargo, and where the townies consider Minneapolis a “sin city.” Lona Williams hails from Minnesota, and her screenplay has a slight whiff of I’m-glad-I-got-the-hell-out-of-there condescension, like Michael Moore’s Roger & Me; but then, nobody said comedy had to be fair to be funny. We laugh at the brain-dead people in these small towns because we know there are actually people like that. But some of them are treated fondly, like Loretta (Allison Janney), a whooping trailer-trash floozy who nonetheless has her own dignity whether she’s making a pass at a cute bartender or going ballistic on a cheerful candy-striper; it helps that Allison Janney projects warmth and sanity no matter what she’s doing.

Drop Dead Gorgeous purports to be a documentary covering the Mount Rose teen beauty pageant, focusing on two girls in particular: Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), an honest striver who works as a morgue beautician and aspires to be Diane Sawyer, and Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), a smiling bitch with no talent to speak of — except maybe on the Lutheran rifle range. Becky is backed up by her monstrous mom (Kirstie Alley), a former pageant winner who has groomed her daughter to follow in her footsteps; Amber’s own mom (Ellen Barkin) is an alcoholic wreck who loves her daughter but isn’t above whacking her with a beer can in moments of stress. The pageant gets interesting when the contestants start dying off in “accidents.”

Actually, that’s where the movie gets less interesting. Drop Dead Gorgeous comes advertised as a black comedy, which has come to mean that people die and you don’t have to care. I would have no problem with this, except that some of the victims — like the one who dies in the thresher explosion — seem so intriguing upon introduction that it’s a shame to lose them. We keep getting thrown back to the main plot, Amber vs. Becky, and I have to say that the movie is not a successful mockumentary: There are just too many scenes that feel like scenes, too many instances when you wonder why the camera is around. Lona Williams and the first-time feature director, Michael Patrick Jann, don’t have a deadpan knack for making absurd situations seem real, as in This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman. They also don’t have the performers; Dunst is appealing, Richards is appropriately vicious, but neither of them deliver their lines as if they were real people on camera fumbling for the right words. The movie has very little improvisatory feel; the one exception is the incomparable Brittany Murphy (Clueless, Freeway), playing a spacey fellow contestant. Put a camera on her and she always comes across as a real person.

The movie does have some mean, funny bits (and I do mean mean; it gets a lot of mileage out of a big mentally disabled guy), and I had fun spotting ace character actors like Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) as a lascivious pageant judge who denies having any prurient interest in the teenage girls, Sam McMurray as Becky’s oafish dad, and Mo Gaffney and Nora Dunn as a pair of lushes who preside over an upper-level pageant-training seminar (I was disappointed that Dunn’s line about girls getting breast implants at birth didn’t make it into the movie). And in the scenes dealing with last year’s winner, a willowy girl now residing in the local hospital’s anorexia wing, Drop Dead Gorgeous skates right up to the line dividing bad taste and atrocious taste. People take eating disorders seriously, and for this movie to make light of the subject is in extremely questionable taste — which is why those scenes stand out and suggest the truly daring satire this might have been. When the anorexic girl is wheeled on stage and lip-syncs to some schmaltzy ballad, the moment is both dangerously funny and undeniably creepy. That, I think, is the tone Drop Dead Gorgeous is aiming for; it should have aimed more often.

The Haunting (1999)

July 23, 1999

the_haunting_1999_1Some of my brothers and sisters in the movie-reviewer community were perhaps a bit hasty when they crowned Wild Wild West the summer’s worst film. Obviously they had not yet seen The Haunting, a needless remake of a solid (if a bit stiff) chiller from 1963. Both films are derived from an acknowledged classic of horror fiction — Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House — yet the remake deviates so sharply, and so stupidly, from Jackson’s simple and elegant story that the end credit mentioning her book is the final insult to her memory.

The premise is butchered right from the start. Liam Neeson, playing a psychologist rechristened “Dr. Peter Marrow,” lures three insomniacs to the ornate old Hill House for alleged “sleep research.” In fact, he’s conducting an experiment in fear on his unsuspecting subjects. In the book and 1963 film, the doctor is actually a ghostbuster who brought three people to live in the reportedly haunted Hill House with him, to see if anything would happen; there was no hidden agenda, and everyone knew pretty much what they might be in for. (Part of the wit of Jackson’s story was that none of the visitors took the Hill House legend all that seriously, until supernatural events proved otherwise.) In the remake, the good doctor seems to pick Hill House because it’s remote and spooky-looking — and thus a good laboratory in which to mess with his insomniacs’ suggestible minds — but apparently has no idea that it really is haunted. One wonders, then, what Dr. Marrow had hoped to do to provoke fear in his subjects. Rattle some chains? Put on a sheet and go “Boo”?

The subjects are Eleanor (Lili Taylor), a quietly frazzled young woman who took care of her ailing mother for years and now can’t function in the real world; Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bisexual fashion plate who swoops around Hill House in new boots from Prada; and Luke (Owen Wilson), whose character was the inheritor of Hill House in earlier incarnations of this story but now has little reason to be there except to wander the halls nervously. Then again, nobody else in the movie has much reason to be there, either. They all seem stupid for falling for the sleep-research cover story, anyway — Dr. Marrow doesn’t even bother to bring computers with which to pretend to monitor their sleep patterns. (What do they think he’s going to do — stand over their beds watching them toss and turn?) Marrow also brings two assistants, new to this remake, who exist only so that the movie can have an expendable character who gets supernaturally wounded; the assistants are gone almost as soon as they arrive.

The best treatment of this material is still Shirley Jackson’s dreamy, precise prose, told almost entirely from Eleanor’s fraying viewpoint. (Put Sylvia Plath in the spooky halls of the Overlook and you’ll have an idea.) Robert Wise’s 1963 version was slightly starchy but still admirable in its refusal to show anything, its faith in the idea that a movie that leaves terror to your imagination is far scarier than anything a Hollywood special-effects team can cook up. Jan De Bont, the former cinematographer turned director who showed promise just a few years ago (Speed, Twister), has chosen the polar opposite approach, drowning The Haunting in rivers of cheesy-looking computer-generated phantoms. The spirits of dead children writhe and curl behind bedsheets and curtains, looking like Casper the friendly ghost. They also look very much like CG effects. $80 million didn’t even buy a convincing Hill House, whose exterior shots all look like models, and whose interiors also, whaddaya know, look very much like CG effects. The house is so vast, so aggressively set-designed, that it’s never credible as an actual house occupying actual space.

De Bont’s lowest-common-denominator method is nothing compared to that of the new screenwriter, David Self, who feels compelled to give Hill House a banal backstory about a vicious tyrant who built it using child laborers. Self compounds this error by linking Eleanor to the tyrant, invalidating the idea of the real haunting — Eleanor’s guilt over her dead mother — and rendering the movie pointless. We get many laughable scenes of bug-eyed cherub sculptures coming to life, and evil spirits roaring towards the camera. There is also, near the end, the most unintentionally hilarious shot I’ve seen since the idiotic Grandma waded through an acidic lake going “Ooh, ahh” in Dante’s Peak. Hint: When something lethal happens in the big fireplace, watch for Liam Neeson’s reaction shot. Everyone else is screaming in shock, and he’s just standing there like “Boy, that’s gotta hurt.”

When you’re not yawning at the digital ghosts, you’re watching a cast of fine actors dogpaddling in clichés and terrible dialogue; Lili Taylor, in particular, works overtime to make her nonsensical character credible, but even this great young actress has her limits, and if you saw her for the first time here you’d assume she was pretty bad. And since Jan De Bont fills the soundtrack with thundering bass noises meant to terrify us, we can’t even enjoy the movie as a retro, cheeseball haunted-house flick — the tone is too heavy. The difference between the minimalist scares of the 1963 film (well-timed thumps in the night that didn’t assault us in Dolby Surround Sound) and the new remake, with its theme-park demons that produce mostly snickers, is further testament to how far Hollywood has fallen. Anyone with enough money can employ state-of-the-art visual and sound effects; it takes genuine artistry not to need them. The much-buzzed-about Blair Witch Project, for all its fumbling and flaws, comes closer to the spirit of the original Haunting than this overproduced, overblown remake.

The Blair Witch Project

July 16, 1999

If Star Wars Episode I is the geek event of the summer, The Blair Witch Project is the hipster event — the movie you have to see, not necessarily because you want to see it, but because you want to be able to say you’ve seen it. As a lifelong horror fan, and one who so recently suffered through The Haunting, I was more than eager to subject myself to what has been described — okay, hyped — as the scariest movie since Halloween and The Exorcist. What I got instead was a neat premise (and not an original one, either), one or two mildly creepy moments, a final shot designed to send ’em out buzzing, and a whole lot of bickering in between.

“In October of 1994,” reads the ad copy, “three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.” The movie we are watching purports to be that footage, though I trust that by now everyone knows that it is actually a work of fiction — the work of three improvising actors entrusted with camera equipment in the woods, under the remote supervision of two directors who figured out a plausible context in which to make a feature-length film on video and 16mm.

A great deal of thought went into The Blair Witch Project, and what’s most disappointing is how little of it shows up in the film itself. As the three-person documentary crew — director Heather (Heather Donahue), cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard), and sound man Mike (Michael Williams) — stumble around the bleak Maryland woods, a sense of strangeness and dread gathers in the repetitive shots of the ugly leaves and tangled branches, which look the same from scene to scene, adding to the characters’ disorientation. They are pursuing a supernatural legend in a dead forest that looks as if it would prefer to stay dead. Blair Witch has a terrific grainy ambiance, but that’s about all it has — it’s all suggestion and no payoff, like a softcore porn video — and when the characters are lost and shrieking at each other, one’s patience begins to wear thin.

An improv movie like this lives or dies on the strength of the performances, and each of the actors here has some good moments — generally when they’re quiet. Heather Donahue, for example, has been encouraged to play Heather as a shrill bitch a lot of the time, so when she’s scared shitless into guilty silence — she knows she’s largely responsible for getting the crew lost — she’s much more effective than when she’s shrieking in terror or rage. But sometimes you miss the structure that a fully scripted horror movie can offer, and the actors often aren’t up to creating their own dialogue on the fly. When the map goes missing, Josh delivers this statement: “Heather, this is so not cool. Heather, this is so not cool.” Her response: “I know, it’s not cool.” And the performers really run “fuck” into the ground; I realize that frightened, exhausted people may revert to repetitive four-letter vocabulary, but after a while it seems like a failure of imagination on the actors’ part. Conversely, the most famous scene — Heather’s anguished apology into her camera — sounds totally pre-scripted and inauthentic. (And it’s framed a little too artfully, as if Heather knew her terror-stricken half-visage would become the movie’s marketing icon.)

The filmmakers go for realism whenever possible (the characters, for instance, are realistically irritating at times), which may be a mistake. Blair Witch rides bumpily on its premise that what we’re watching is real, yet since we know it’s not, all we can do is judge how well it has been faked. We become connoisseurs, not emotionally involved in the characters’ plight. The movie feels like an improvisatory exercise, not a pure shot of ungovernable horror, and its chills amount to the usual spooky omens (ooh, a bunch of sticks!!) and odd rustlings in the dead of night. It feels like the work of clever people dabbling in horror — a calling card, a riff, a watercooler topic for a few weeks after its release.

Horror movies may be so cluttered and ironic now that some people may take this film’s minimalist, back-to-basics method as a form of integrity, which in a way it is. But the end result isn’t very satisfying. Most of the movie, in fact, deals with mundane fears like getting lost in the woods; the filmmakers devote more time to arguments over who lost the map than to supernatural terror. And much of it is far too high-pitched, as if foulmouthed hysteria would be enough to frighten us. Some have said that if we didn’t know Blair Witch was fake, it really would be as terrifying as many critics are claiming. But who ever thought Halloween or Night of the Living Dead were really happening? Those movies scared us because, well, they were scary, not because they were cleverly faked to seem real. Blair Witch is a labored gimmick with too much “realism” and too little inventiveness.

In an early scene in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (now there’s a great horror movie), two college students are lost on the foggy Moors, surrounded by blood-freezing growling noises; one of them clenches his teeth and says quietly, “Ah, shit, David, what is that?” That brief, understated scene does everything that this movie tries, and mostly fails, to do in 86 minutes. The Blair Witch Project may bother those who are easily freaked out, and it may dissuade a few campers, but the lofty talk in the press of its being a new horror masterpiece is nonsense. That’s a burden of hype this scrawny cinema-verité stunt can’t carry.

Eyes Wide Shut

July 16, 1999

As a die-hard fan of the work of Stanley Kubrick, I thoroughly enjoyed his swan song Eyes Wide Shut, but I have my doubts as to what the general public — those not already attuned to Kubrick’s style and rhythm — will make of it. Will they simply respond to the plot? There really isn’t one. Will they go expecting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to show us all what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom? They don’t — except for that kissing-in-front-of-the-mirror scene most people have seen anyway. In fact, it now seems clear that Kubrick may have cast Cruise and Kidman as a sort of conceptual prank: the hottest married couple in movies, and they’re apart for most of the film.

Eyes Wide Shut is an exquisitely stubborn work — a repressed erotic movie. Based more or less on Arthur Schnitzler’s tightly written 1926 novel Traumnovelle (or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel), the screenplay by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael follows Cruise’s character, Dr. Bill Harford, on two long and bruising nights after his wife Alice (Kidman) has confessed to having sexual fantasies about a man who once caught her eye. Bill, conflicted and haunted by his visions of his wife in bed with another man, goes forth into the New York night and does … well, not much. Part of the sly joke of the book and the movie is that its main characters haven’t done anything to feel guilty about. The shame derives from the erotic theater of the mind.

The story is essentially a psychological odyssey and won’t hold up under literal-minded scrutiny. Kubrick’s “New York” is a soundstage New York, created in London (of course) and intended to stand in for any city, where the possibilities of both pleasure and pain are endless. Bill wanders about, running across a variety of available women who keep throwing themselves at him. In the film’s centerpiece, he finds himself at an orgy, a sort of mad ball in which anonymous people in masks and cloaks go at each other joylessly. The sequence, I think, is meant to dramatize the folly of sexual freedom, which can be another kind of prison. (For the record, the digitally inserted figures obscuring some of the action only serve to make the film dirtier, since your naughty imagination just fills in what’s being hidden.)

After the orgy, Eyes Wide Shut loses a little steam. Kubrick keeps his pace slow and steady, but the film slackens near the end when it should tighten (as it tightens in his other films); the last 20 minutes or so begin to wear you down. In particular, a billiard-table chat between Bill and a tycoon acquaintance (well played by Sydney Pollack) drags on as much as the men’s-room talk between Jack Torrance and Grady the waiter in The Shining, only without that scene’s sinister undertones. It’s especially wearying because nothing is disclosed in this dialogue that we haven’t already guessed. The final act of the master’s final film feels like a saddening winding-down — a loss of energy, a capitulation to convention.

On reflection, though, that may be what Kubrick intended. In the theater, I think this scene was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many viewers. We’re at the 2:20 point, we should be heading for the home stretch, and along comes Sydney Pollack to tell us a lot of shit that doesn’t especially affect anything. In fact, what he says raises more questions than it answers. I’m prepared to defend the scene: For one thing, it mocks the viewer’s need for resolution, by over-explicating in a way that doesn’t satisfy us (much as the shrink did at the end of Psycho). You keep waiting for a revelation that ties things together, but all Pollack says is that the death of a prostitute earlier in the movie had nothing to do with what went on at the orgy. Of course, he could also be full of shit. Bill spends about half an hour of screen time wandering around chasing a non-mystery, or at least a mystery that isn’t cleared up to our satisfaction.

Eyes Wide Shut obviously looks great, the slightly saturated images unfolding smoothly and meticulously. And Kubrick gets avid performances from Cruise and Kidman, as well as a slew of supporting players — Marie Richardson as a grieving woman, Todd Field as a mysterious pianist, Vinessa Shaw as every man’s soft, pliant dream hooker, Leelee Sobieski conveying Lolita-esque naughtiness with a bare minimum of dialogue. One must remember, too, that Eyes Wide Shut is no more “about” its events than The Shining was “about” a haunted hotel or 2001 was “about” a space mission gone awry. Like all Kubrick’s films, this one will take time, and multiple viewings, to yield up its full meaning and resonance. Armed as I am with just one viewing under my belt, I can confidently say it’s a worthy capper to a great body of work.

Arlington Road

July 9, 1999

Is it possible for a thriller — any thriller — to surprise us any more? We go to these things, after all, expecting a certain number of generic twists and turns; there is some comfort (and more than a little boredom) in our knowledge that a thriller will play by the rules, follow the accepted mainstream template. Increasingly, one has to look outside the studio system. Arlington Road got a nationwide opening and has big-name stars, but notice its distributor: Sony Screen Gems. In other words, this is something of an indie thriller in big-studio sheep’s clothing. The movie is both darker and more intimate than you expect.

Arlington Road grabs you from its stressful pre-credits scene, in which history professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), driving along one afternoon, happens across a boy limping in the middle of the road, dazed and bleeding. The boy, it turns out, had been messing around with a homemade bomb and nearly blew his hand off. Michael scoops the boy up and rushes him to the hospital; he eventually discovers that the kid is one of three children in the happy family of Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), who live just across the street from Michael and his own little boy. Michael anguishes over the idea that he didn’t know the name of his neighbors’ son, but we sense that Oliver and Cheryl have been unknown to Michael up to this point because they wanted to be unknown.

As it happens, Michael is carrying more than the usual amount of modern American paranoia. His wife, an FBI agent, was killed in a senseless exchange of fire at a remote West Virginia shack; he immerses himself in his courses, where he teaches the history of terrorism and is prone to impassioned rants about the government and their official lies. Jeff Bridges, who could sell snow to Eskimos, lets us see Michael not as a conspiracy nut but as a grieving widower trying to make sense of a world where children are blown to bits in day-care centers. And he’s starting to suspect good-buddy neighbor Oliver of plotting to blow up a building.

Sharply directed by Mark Pellington, and written by Ehren Kruger with an ear for banal suburban banter hiding sinister truths, Arlington Road lulls us for a while into thinking it’s about the misplaced mistrust of our era. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack (whose character could have been fleshed out more) don’t make the mistake of playing Oliver and Cheryl as “Hi honey, I’m home” cartoons. They are legitimately likable people, and we want to believe Oliver when, feeling hurt and insulted, he confronts Michael about the snooping he’s been doing. We begin to wonder if Michael is merely a good man deranged by loss and obsessed with the spectre of terrorism in every house, at every backyard barbecue.

But the movie has a few curves in store for us, leading to a regrettable car chase that’s a little too drawn out. Yet even the car chase, as I look back on it, has come to seem fairly subversive. A car chase is usually the appetizer before the main course, the standard climax in which the hero confronts the villain and blows him away. As Michael points out to his class, we need a narrative — both in movies and in our daily news — in which only one loner is responsible for an atrocity, and once he dies, his evil dies with him. Let’s just say Arlington Road isn’t that narrative. With its big-name stars and its fender-crunching pre-climax, the movie lulls you into a false sense of security; just when you think you’ve grasped it, it blows up in your hand.

American Pie

July 9, 1999

In these strange times, a movie like American Pie has a reassuring message: There are still teenage boys trying to get into teenage girls’ pants, and there are still teenage girls trying to keep teenage boys out of said pants. T’was ever thus, and ever thus will be. Part of growing up, unfortunately, is forgetting what it’s like to be a mass of churning hormones; getting older, we get pious and judgmental about horny teens. Somehow, each generation, once they pass age 25 or so, thinks they were better, smarter teenagers than the current generation of teenagers. T’was ever thus, yada yada. So get ready for the offended reactions to American Pie, which does not pretend that teenagers do not have libidos or drink or look at dirty pictures. They do. We did, too. T’was ever etc. etc.

American Pie isn’t anything great or original; it has been constructed to be to the ’90s what Animal House was to the ’70s and Porky’s was to the ’80s. But it has likable characters and infectiously funny situations, and that’s about all a comedy like this needs. The movie, written by rookie scenarist Adam Herz and directed by newcomer Paul Weitz (his brother Chris Weitz produced), makes scrappy comedy out of what feels like a tragedy at the time: the teenage male’s urgent need, and overwhelming inability, to lose his virginity. Is it gross? Occasionally, but no more so than the PG-13-rated Austin Powers 2. In fact, American Pie was threatened with an NC-17; it must be that unwittingly drinking shit is okay, but unwittingly drinking semen is verboten.

The plot follows four high-school seniors — Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) — as they make a pact to get laid before they graduate. They set their calendars to prom night, which comes in a mere three weeks. The klutzy but endearing Jim can’t say two words to a girl without disaster; his mellow and helpful dad (Eugene Levy in a great performance that gets big laughs while still allowing the father to retain his dignity) sits him down for frequent serious talks about sex, using visual aids involving magazines with names like Shaved. Kevin, an insecure but basically good-hearted kid, gets the jitters when his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid) is too quick to say those terrifying three words and expects him to return them; he eventually seeks outside assistance in giving Vicky “the big O,” in lieu of saying he loves her, I guess. Oz, a lacrosse jock, discovers a good way to get some action: join the choir and hook up with comely singer Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch, a sad-eyed non-entity, figures out a way to create a stud mystique about himself even though he still feels compelled to run home from school to take a dump (don’t ask).

Everything leads to a party, as teen movies often do, and since this is a mainstream comedy, it isn’t spoiling anything to say that the four guys pretty much achieve their goals — though how exactly they achieve them, and whom with, is part of the fun of the movie. American Pie is raunchy but essentially decent at heart. The four heroes aren’t predators, just desperate kids caught in the teen obsession with fitting in. Past a certain point, they can’t even remember why they ever wanted to have sex in the first place. And the movie doesn’t ignore the girls, either. Two of the best characters are sort of outside observers: Jessica (Natasha Lyonne, looking more than ever like Elisabeth Shue’s kid sister), who’s seen it all and gives no-nonsense advice to boys and girls alike; and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), whose endless prattle about her G-rated adventures at band camp sets us up for one of the movie’s biggest belly-laughs. (It’s a shame the TV ads somewhat spoil it.) As for the less admirable horndogs — the insensitive jock Stifler (Seann William Scott), the boastful Sherman (Chris Owen) — the film’s worst humiliations are reserved for them.

The star, if there is one here, is Jason Biggs, whose Jim gets acquainted with the eponymous pastry (an already legendary scene) and has his exertions with a knockout foreign-exchange student broadcast over the Internet to half the kids in school. Jim is the vulnerable, yearning guy you always see in these movies: desperate and resourceful enough to allow male viewers to identify with him, lovably klutzy and harmless enough to allow women to enjoy his misadventures as well. American Pie may have the unbeatable combo of word-of-mouth outrageousness and redeeming heart; it also happens to be a genuinely good and enjoyable film, which shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Summer of Sam

July 2, 1999

Can a high-powered director triumph over a weak script? It’s possible, I suppose, but most often improbable. In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee exhausts his bag of tricks, trying to keep the energy level up, and parts of the movie are affecting or exciting. But after a while you grow weary of being pelted with the director’s pyrotechnics. It’s like watching a stunningly edited and photographed video tour of one’s own basement. The form is fine; it’s the content that’s missing. By the end, Lee seems to be blaring “Won’t Get Fooled Again” just to keep himself, and us, awake.

The film begins on a corny note, with Jimmy Breslin addressing the camera and setting the scene: In the steamy summer of 1977, David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, lurked around New York City shooting lovers in their parked cars. The movie proper, after the prologue, starts compellingly enough to get one’s hopes up. One hot dark night, with ABBA’s cheerful “Fernando” playing on the radio, two attractive young women sit in their car chatting. They notice a hulking shape outside; seconds later, their brains are on the windshield. Spike Lee is great at the mood of dread and menace — the killer approaching from the shadows, the abrupt flash of violence, the sense that something ugly and unstoppable is out there in the dark, somewhere. New York in the summer of 1977 is a seething playground of sex and drugs and disco; suddenly a monster is loose in the playground, as if summoned by a wrathful god to keep sinners locked up in their homes.

Unfortunately, the film moves from there into a kaleidoscopic look at the people in the neighborhood and how the murders affect them; problem is, there are no people, just types. Spike Lee had originally intended to executive-produce the script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio; when he decided to direct it, he tweaked the script. He should’ve kept tweaking. The main characters, in terms of screen time, appear to be an unhappy married couple, Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino), and a punk-rocker, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), Vinny’s old friend, who has been away from the neighborhood for a year and has now returned with spiky hair and a Johnny Rotten accent. Right away, the locals suspect Ritchie of being Son of Sam, even though the M.O. of any serial killer is to blend in, to walk among us unnoticed; the gaudy Ritchie does neither.

We spend entirely too much time with Vinny and Dionna, a bland pair with sexual hang-ups; he’s cheating on her because he doesn’t know how to ask her for the erotic favors he craves. Improbably, they find themselves at an orgy at Plato’s Retreat, after which their relationship predictably goes south, in a naturalistic, Cassavetes-like series of arguments that seem to assume we take these two limited squabblers seriously. Meanwhile, Ritchie hooks up with the neighborhood pump Ruby (the underused Jennifer Esposito) and forms a punk-rock band, setting Berkowitz’s psycho-poetry (as published in the New York Post) to grinding “music.” During all this, a group of oafish Italians roam around making a list of suspects, and even the mob determines to catch the killer, as in Fritz Lang’s M. There is more sex, more drugs, much fighting and posturing and paranoid finger-pointing. We don’t really know why we’re watching all of this.

As always, Lee works with a talented cast — he’s one of those directors with the prestige and clout to lure top actors into reading from the phone book for peanuts — yet the fragmented structure works against them, and in any case, they’re given very little to play except hysteria. Patti LuPone shows she’s a good sport by letting herself fall out of her dress; Bebe Neuwirth grinds her body against Leguizamo’s groin. The women are highly sexualized, the men hapless and borderline impotent (Vinny is popular with the ladies despite being a very quick come). Almost by default, the movie focuses on Vinny’s struggles with Dionna and his conflicted feelings about his old friend Ritchie. Vinny swallows ludes and flails about, and I expected the script to take him to the edge of ultimate paranoia: thinking that he himself could be Son of Sam and not even realize it. The movie doesn’t seem to think of that, and poor Leguizamo, chalky and pouring sweat, turns into a dinner-theater version of Ray Liotta near the end of GoodFellas. Leguizamo can be a loose, funny actor, but here he’s straining too much for effects — much like his director.

Working with editor Barry Alexander Brown (who has cut many other Spike Lee joints) and cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon, 4 Little Girls), Lee puts together an engaging pastiche of images. You never question that you’re in the hands of a moviemaker who thinks with his eyes. Yet Lee can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a neighborhood portrait or a tabloid-flashy bit of exploitation — there are too many overdone scenes of Berkowitz (Michael Badolucco) freaking out in his ratty apartment like the villain of some squalid slasher flick, and Lee piles on the K-Tel oldies, often so loudly that we can’t hear what the characters are saying.

Not that it makes much difference most of the time. Summer of Sam is the perfect New York companion piece to the L.A.-set Boogie Nights — it scampers around, never pausing long enough to allow any one character to gain purchase in our hearts. It’s also overlong: at two hours and twenty-two minutes, this melodrama with its paper-thin characters and predetermined outcome puts considerable stress on our patience. A great movie could be made about a blistering New York summer that brings neighborhood tensions to a boil of violence. Spike Lee can make that movie; in fact, he already did, ten years ago. Summer of Sam suffers in every conceivable way in comparison to Do the Right Thing, and contrasting the two films proves what Spike Lee can do when he has his heart in the material and fire in his belly, and what he can’t do when he doesn’t.