Double Trouble


The title Very Bad Things not only refers to this week’s movie but also brings to mind the past few months’ plethora of nasty, over-the-top, programmatically un-p.c. black comedies—Your Friends and Neighbors, There’s Something About Mary, Happiness, and Celebration. Even the least of these is vastly superior to this first feature, schematically written and directed at a very high decibel level by actor Peter Berg (Dr. Kronk of Chicago Hope).

A rudderless farce about a bachelor party gone fatally berserk, Very Bad Things is predicated on the disjunction between the ultimate socially sanctioned act—the impending nuptials of the characters played by Cameron Diaz and Jon Favreau—and the grossly antisocial behavior exhibited by Favreau and his cronies on a wild weekend in Las Vegas. Given the location, the anxiety, and Favreau’s presence, Very Bad Things might have been a dark successor to Swingers. But suaveness, however bogus, is not a major part of the Berg agenda.

Very Bad Things does not do much table setting. There’s no way to discuss Berg’s opus without alluding to his Grand Guignol centerpiece. Hyperventilating from the jazzy, snarky get-go, the movie goes totally MTV once the boys arrive in Vegas and start jumping around their hotel room, snorting coke, bonging out, and haplessly wrestling with the unexpected deaths of the Asian lap-dancer they’ve hired and the black security guard who shows up to investigate the mess. It’s the heart of badness to be sure, but despite the picture of Don Rickles prominently displayed in the suite, it’s actually not all that comic. The overabundance of anguished whining drowns out even the chain saws. (And if you’re intrigued by the spectacle of an out-of-control criminal cover-up, you’re much better off waiting a few weeks for Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan.)

With Favreau as the deer perpetually trapped in the headlights, Christian Slater gives the movie what passes for a zetz by taking charge as the group’s Iron John cheerleader. Daniel Stern ups the annoyance factor considerably, giving a shrill, one-note performance as a neurotic paterfamilias, with Jeremy Piven playing his fuck-up kid brother. Leland Orser tags along for the ride as a catatonic fifth wheel. As abstract as they are, there’s no particular reason to care about these guys. The actors couldn’t be sweating more profusely if they were sitting in a sauna, but it’s every man for himself—there’s not much ensemble chemistry.

Funny or not, Very Bad Things has the makings of an angry-white-male screed—although all five chimps together don’t convey the polished malice of even one Michael Douglas. Indeed, lacking the courage of its dubious convictions, the movie eventually starts flogging itself. Berg seems pleased that, with the exception of the luckless hooker, the female characters—Diaz and Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays Stern’s wife—give almost as good as they get in the battle of the sexes. Tripplehorn (or her body double) puts on an impressive kick-boxing display, and Diaz is particularly memorable in the thankless, harridan role of Favreau’s fanatically marriage-minded fiancée. (When the movie’s villain attempts to disrupt the climactic wedding, she takes matters into her own manicured hands: “This is my day!”)

As in her sensationally blithe performance in There’s Something About Mary, Diaz never breaks character. (Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman notwithstanding, there hasn’t been a Hollywood actress who so combines sex appeal with physical comedy since Shirley MacLaine.) Still, Diaz is only a minor attraction in this show. Very Bad Things is a guy film, and, as such, it’s a dog. The gross-out humor lacks edge, the guilt never kicks in, and the outrages are predictable. It’s one flat brewski.

The featured film in the Walter Reade’s current Iranian series, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror is a quintessential example of that national cinema—a spare slice of life, at once neorealist and self-reflexive.

Panahi, whose 1995 first feature, The White Balloon, proved to be the most commercially successful Iranian movie in the annals of American distribution, revisits the situation of a little girl coping with the vicissitudes of the big city—indeed, the child actress is the same (grave, chubby Mina Mohammad Khani), although her predicament here is far more existential. Arm in a sling and oversize book bag slung across her back, first-grader Mina is waiting outside school for her mother —as it turns out, in vain.

The girl is as anxiously hypervigilant as the intersection is busy—the traffic accentuated by the amplified soundtrack and the squeezed space of the telephoto lens Panahi uses to keep Mina in situ. In some regards, the movie is a little primer—Mina crosses the street with adults and carries money to make an emergency phone call. Too bad she hasn’t an emergency plan, can’t seem to remember her bus number, and doesn’t know her street address. (Nor is the school much help.) Mina nevertheless attempts to get herself home, taking buses and then jumping off, reversing field, forgetting to use the women’s entrance on the bus, and finding herself left behind.

Panahi makes much of the child’s solitude in the crowd, together with the relative disinterest evinced by the adult world babbling above her head. Midway through, at the point of maximum narrative involvement, The Mirror does what some might consider a very bad thing—abruptly switching from neo-neorealism to self-conscious cinema verité. “Don’t look at the camera, Mina,” someone tells the girl, and suddenly the crew is right there. At this point, the star rebels: “I’m not acting anymore,” Mina cries, taking off her sling and chador and hopping off the bus. The crew is consternated, but, realizing that Mina is still on mike, they continue to document her progress through the streets of Tehran. But as the fiction appears to dissolve into life, the basic situation remains constant. Mina still must negotiate the adult world to find her way back home.

Shot largely from a child’s perspective, punctuated by radio bulletins on a soccer match between South Korea and Iran, The Mirror is so concentrated in its elements and so single-minded in its narrative as to be practically a structural film. Nothing, however, is as insistent as Mina’s high-pitched, piercing voice—at once admirable and grating in its constant interrogation of grown-up authority.

The Walter Reade’s Iranian show is scarcely the only series to give The Mirror context. New York’s ongoing film festival includes several retrospectives that would provide a parallel grounding. MOMA’s “Cinema Novo and Beyond” is showcasing the most extensive of post-neorealist Third World cinema movements, while this weekend the Guggenheim is screening the cinema verité template Chronicle of a Summer and a new wave tale of a woman in the city, Cleo From 5 to 7. Back downtown, John Cassavetes’s second retro in 15 months starts Friday at Anthology Film Archives. Cassavetes, of course, is the patron saint of actor-driven, documentary-style narrative filmmaking. While The Mirror is a sort of critique of Cassavetes naturalism, it’s disconcerting to think what he might have made of a script like Very Bad Things.