Then comes the body of the film, which is loud. This is true both in the literal sense — at one point two characters are screaming a conversation over a stereo set to about 14 and a blaring television, and even when the speakers get turned down, director Paul Anderson pumps up the nondiegetic score just as loud — and in the metaphorical: not only is Anderson's filmmaking style about as frenetic as they come, but here he's tackling one of those Short Cuts type dealies with a hundred narrative threads, which has a not entirely dissimilar effect as a bunch of different appliances blasting at once.
Some of these threads feel half-baked, or unnecessary duplicates of others; while I have no idea what went into the making of the screenplay, it feels like just-in-time content used to bind together some bravura moments. And those moments are indeed cool. But that doesn't stop the film from feeling like Anderson's Shrapnel, only way too long instead of way too short. For instance, Anderson builds each of his hundred threads to a moment of maximum suspense — and then stretches that moment out for pretty much the entire middle third of the film! It's like a hundred-meter dash: the race may only take ten seconds, but if you show only one second of it, then cut to the last play of a tied basketball game and show one second of that, and then cut to a vote on some important piece of legislation and show one vote being read, then cut back to another second of the race, then another second of the game... eventually some of that tension needs to be relieved, okay? We have to find out what happens in one of the freaking threads, or else we get exhausted and start thinking, okay, what is it that this guy's been winding us up about? And it turns out to be just a matter of whether a phone call will be successfully completed, or if a TV game show contestant will be embarrassed, and we think, bleah, this isn't worth getting nervous about, and just like that, the director has lost us. Lost me, anyway.
Stanley, the genius kid on the game show, wasn't an interesting character — he's basically a bad xerox of Little Man Tate — but his thread did bring back memories. See, the whole game show with gifted-kid panelists has reasonably deep roots in literature — Anderson's "What Do Kids Know?" seems like a riff on Salinger's "It's a Wise Child" — but there actually was at least one of these things, and I was on it. Back in 1982 and '83, I was part of the pool of kids with a regular gig on CBS's "Child's Play," a game show hosted by Bill Cullen where kids on tape would define words and adult contestants would try to guess what the hell the kids were talking about. Some of the kids, like Stanley's co-panelists in the movie, were using the gig as a stepping stone to other industry jobs — one of them, Jeff Cohen, was cast as "Chunk" in The Goonies and later was student body president of the University of California — but me, I was on it because... well, that was one of the things this movie made me think about. Why did I audition for that show? The best answer I can come up with was that I liked being clever in public. It wasn't for the loot: at the time I didn't know I'd be making any money. I think I ended up making about $3000 in bonds and another $3000 or so in gifts — in fact, most of my things as I kid I earned working for CBS: my little black-and-white TV, my keyboards, my disc camera (remember those?), all that stuff. And it also wasn't to build a career in showbiz — the rest of the kids were auditioning for commercials and sitcom pilots and such, but I turned down offers to do the same. Mainly because my mom mentioned that if I ended up becoming a child actor full-time, I'd have to leave school and get an on-set tutor, and the idea of leaving school horrified me. After all, school gave me the opportunity to be clever in public all the time. Just for a smaller audience.
Anyway, it's a good thing I stayed in school, because otherwise I might have fallen for the prologue.