As spacey as its title suggests, Gregg Araki’s latest youth film is an occult mystery set in the ultimate SoCal college playpen. Kaboom is Scooby-Doo with sex, drugs, and tattooed hotties; following on the heels of Araki’s relatively commercial stoner farce Smiley Face (2007), the movie makes you wonder whether Mysterious Skin (2005), his surprisingly serious and emotionally subtle evocation of pedophilia, was basically a one-off.
Now 51, Araki seems nostalgic for the self-characterized irresponsibility that was his youthful trademark. In introducing his latest film at Cannes, the director has cited his great precursor John Waters’s request that he make “another old-school Gregg Araki movie,” and Kaboom shows him nearly as rambunctious as he was in the early ’90s, when he burst upon the indie scene as the leading bad boy of the New Queer Cinema.
Like Nowhere (1997), the old school Araki Kaboom most resembles, teenage fantasy runs rampant. There is ample reason to assume the movie is a dream of college by “ambisexual” freshman and would-be cinema-studies major Smith (Thomas Dekker). The antiseptic dorm rooms are ultra-Ikea and everyone in this demographically homogeneous, perfectly coiffed world seems to be 28. The kids party all night and pass out in class; Smith has a hunky surfer roommate named Thor (Chris Zylka), who sits down on his bed naked and says, “I’ve never kissed another guy before”—wait, that is a dream! Thor is actually a happy hetero slob who bursts into the room to “plow” some equally hammered coed and is subsequently surprised by Smith, attempting to suck his own dick.
What is college if not the place to discover your sexual identity? Adults don’t exist except for Smith’s too-cool-for-school mother (Kelly Lynch, the secret star of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy), who, when he finally phones home, acknowledges him with, “Well, it’s about time, asshole.” Smith’s cool and bitchy best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), comes all undone when she becomes involved with the campus witch Lorelei (Catherine Breillat veteran Roxane Mesquida). Smith eats a magic cookie and goes to a party where a red-haired girl of mystery (Nicole LaLiberte) heaves on his shoe and he’s picked up in the toilet by the honey-haired London (Juno Temple)—her line is to ask him if he’d like to fuck. As in a dream, everyone is totally blunt: “If I come any more tonight, my cooch is gonna break,” Stella tells the ravenous Lorelei. (The dialogue seems to have been written by a disinhibited Todd Solondz.)
With its pop colors and compositions—including a giant close-up of mac-and-cheese—Kaboom is a garish billboard for id unbridled, filled with wicked one-liners, relentlessly over-the-top in the tradition of Waters, George Kuchar, and underground comix. The action more or less proceeds from one bed to the next—the sex embellished by mysterious tantric star bursts and outlandish setups. (One orgasm is framed as if it were a crucifixion.) The tone is mildly didactic in its defense of sexual variety or, more often, simply comic. “To clear my head, I went to this nude beach,” Smith tells Stella, explaining how he hooked up with an apparent surf bum who claims to be a professional hot-tub designer. Paradise is breached when Smith stumbles over the red-haired girl being chased by a gaggle of demonic frat boys in animal masks.
Araki doesn’t quite have the social-networking thing down but, as cults, conspiracies, and secret identities proliferate, he seems to have taken a long look at Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and possibly the apocalyptic Max Fleischer cartoon KoKo’s Earth Control. Kaboom does have an excellent punchline, although even at 86 minutes it feels too long—mainly because Araki can’t help letting his camera linger over his performers. Hard to blame him—he’s assembled the best-looking cast in town and it’s largely his gaga appreciation that makes the movie so much fun.