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GRIM AND GRIMMER
TWO THANKSGIVING-WEEK MOVIES WITH A TASTE FOR THE DARK SIDE

The couple that left after a half-hour (right around the time of the second corpse) looked at me sadly on the way out of the movie theater and said, "Man, that's an ugly movie." The couple in front of us stuck it out for another 45 minutes of telling each other it was "disgusting" before walking out in a huff, never to be seen or heard from again. I'm sure they weren't alone, either.

Then again, many people -- mostly young -- at the end of the screening of "Very Bad Things" chortled wickedly and applauded vigorously at the grisly audacity and twisted hilarity of what they had just seen. It's about as sick a cloudland comedy as I've ever seen, but I think I'm on their side. "Very Bad Things" made me laugh and cringe about equally. It's a horrific delight.

That Cameron Diaz is one of its stars means that Diaz -- who beamed through the summer's bad-taste blockbuster "There's Something About Mary" -- must now be crowned the unquestioned Queen of Crackbrain Cinema, the Guinevere of Ghastliness and Gross-out.

You may not believe this, but very dark comedies are something of a Thanksgiving tradition in modern moviedom.

Yes, it transformed the way movies would be released forever, but forget the original "Home Alone" for a second. Think back to that great and glorious black comedy "The War of the Roses" -- probably the definitive American movie comedy about divorce. Yup. A Thanksgiving week release.

And now "Very Bad Things," a movie about the worst possible bachelor party, a movie that actually succeeds in getting laughs out of fratricide, dismemberment, Jewish burial law, bridal wedding frenzy and needy children. It makes Charles Addams look like Disney.

Nor is it the only taste-stretcher due to open Wednesday in one of the bigger movie opening weeks of the year. Along with "A Bug's Life" and "Babe: Pig in the City," two much-awaited movies for kids, the visually seductive "Elizabeth" and the eccentric Drew Barrymore comedy/drama "Home Fries," movie theaters all over America will also be overrun by "Ringmaster" starring Jerry Springer, a man whose TV show even Pollyanna and Will Rogers might have hated and whose movie is even worse.

Why, one might ask, do the evil geniuses of movie marketing insist on serving such bile during a week mass media like to think of as full of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and noble tales of Squanto and Sacajawea?

Because it isn't just the week for homecomings and football and the poultry parade. It's the week when all the young school-age hooligans are let loose
on an unsuspecting world to pack in as much anti-social behavior as possible before going back to school.

Hence, all the anti-social movies that aren't exactly targeted for Aunt May who just flew in from Waukegan or cousin Archie and his wife, Veronica, unveiling their new bambino, Jughead, for the assembled family.

In fact, anyone of even vestigial sensitivity about movie content would be well advised to keep as far away from "Very Bad Things" as possible. As an eccentric old professor I knew used to put it, this is not a movie for those of tender kidney.

It was written and directed by Peter Berg, the "Chicago Hope" actor who assembled a crackerjack cast of acting buddies for his little yarn -- Christian Slater (whose drug and cop assault bust came during filming), Cameron Diaz, Daniel Stern, Jon Favreau and Jeremy Piven (of ABC-TV's wonderful "Cupid").

It's like this: Favreau and Diaz are about to get married and she's obsessing about the details, right down to the kind of cushions on the gold chairs. His friends cheerfully tell him that marriage is "an 18-wheel cement truck that's going to crush every bone in your f------ body." So, in the time-honored male tradition, he and his buddies have a final bachelor party in Las Vegas.

There's booze, cocaine, a stripper/hooker and enough "boys' night out" attitude to keep the Dallas Cowboys going for the season -- until, that is, the girl accidentally dies under ghastly and bloody circumstances. They decide right then and there against going to the cops.

Much fear and loathing and a lot more corpses ensue, thereby confirming that law of human behavior that the 20th century American presidency has taught us -- it's not the crime you have to watch out for, it's the coverup.

The group of five guys splits into camps, with Daniel Stern as the married father of two handicapped kids in one camp and Christian Slater, as a homicidal self-help group alumnus, in the other. (His argument against going to the cops, standing in a bathroom awash in blood, is, "Don't you think we've got a little bit of a DNA problem here?")

That's what carries the movie, from groans to winces to laughter that comes out midway between a moan and a belly laugh. You can laugh at all the blood and sinister behavior without feeling awful in the morning. That's because, unlike Todd Solondz's "Happiness," Berg doesn't think that the misery of others is intrinsically funny, only that of people who are in a state of geometrically progressing self-delusion.

Nor is it grisliness itself that Berg finds funny, a la Quentin Tarantino at his worst. It's the madness of rationality in the most irrational circumstances he finds funny. It's people who, in a bathroom where two murdered corpses are bleeding by the quart, can say: "What we have done here is not a good thing. But given the circumstances, it was definitely the smart play."

There's a line for the ages -- "definitely the smart play." It's what everyone wants to do all through "Very Bad Things" and why the corpses keep piling up.

As actors' movies so often are, it's superbly acted. Yes, there's a lot of screaming (especially from Daniel Stern) and going way over the top in somersaults, but it's all for comic effect and most of it works.

This isn't just black comedy, it's the movies' successful version of the freak-show funnies -- not for everyone, of course, but for those with a taste for what Monty Python used to call "something completely different."

Jerry Springer's "Ringmaster," on the other hand, is ghastly to the point of being unwatchable. It's an exploitation movie about a man whose daily job it is to exploit human stupidity for all it's worth.

Springer is the broadcasting ethic unchained. The one thing that broadcasting people will always defend from now until the end of the world is what we've now taken to calling "dumbing down." They have, in fact, taught the world that just when you think the lowest common denominator has been reached, things can go still lower.

In an age of fragmented TV audiences, denominators don't have to be quite so common anymore, so there's always a new answer to Chubby Checker's musical question, "How low can you go?"

Springer, on TV, is as low as it goes these days. The movie goes still lower in following some Springer talkers (a daughter and mother sleeping with the same man) from trailer park to TV studio, with many glandular secretions in between. For those who care, you also get to see Jerry Springer singing in a country-and-western bar.

Springer's only decent argument for what he does is the class argument -- that he provides an avenue of self-expression for those whom our society gives no voice.

But his show carefully selects them for the stupidity and reprehensibility of their behavior, as if poverty and the worst human qualities go hand in hand. The world is full of people who know better.

For any but those whose boat is floated nightly by Springer's assault on decency, it's unwatchable. Out of respect for the real actors involved in it, nothing in the world could get me to list their names.

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