Some movies I've seen lately but haven't had time to write up:
Punch-Drunk Love's main calling card is having cast Adam Sandler as the lead in an arthouse movie. This is somewhat problematic in that Sandler isn't actually an actor in the playing-a-character sense. He's a clown. He does silly voices and stuff. Ah, but that's just it, the filmmakers counter. This movie Explores The Adam Sandler Persona! You know how his movies are all about a schmuck prone to violent outbursts? Well, here's one that actually delves into that character, has some psychological insight, allows him to stretch a little bit! Great idea, eh?
Problem is, that's not really The Adam Sandler Persona. The Adam Sandler Persona is a smirking fratboy half-assedly pretending to be a schmuck prone to violent outbursts. He's the kid in the back row who tries to be a class clown but keeps sniggering at his own silly voice — and is still considered high-larious by his community-college classmates. Even in this film, pitched at a different audience, Sandler gives off a "hey, everyone, get a load of me! I'm acting! Ain't that a laff riot?" vibe, and that kind of torpedoes Punch-Drunk Love.
Not that it's all that hot otherwise. It seems to be a grab-bag of a few different ideas thrown together less because they actually mesh than to clear out the filmmakers' backlog of plot thread ideas. Though too many ideas certainly beats too few, one well-realized idea beats any number of half-baked ones, and it's the latter on display here.
The Rules of Attraction also relies on casting for a lot of its punch. James Van Der Beast of Dawson's Creek In A Role That May Surprise You™! Jessica Biel of 7th Heaven In A Role That May Surprise You™! Faye Dunaway in a role that seems to just be there so the filmmakers could say Faye Dunaway's in the movie! And, In A Role That May Surprise And Disgust You... see, there's this scene where Dawson goes to visit this chunky junkie who's lying around in his underwear droning on stonedly about how "you see... I don't have... any clocks in my room... 'cause they keep you... from using time... to suit your needs...", puts a cigarette in his navel for safekeeping, smells his socks as he takes them off, shoots up heroin between his toes and shouts, "OH! OH! I can feel my dick!"... and you're watching this scene and suddenly you realize, holy mother of crows, that's Fred Savage! Winnie Cooper must be crying her eyes out.
There's more here than stunt casting, though. There's also stunt camerawork and editing: lots of backwards film (vomit flying back into mouths, pool balls coming together into a triangle), split-screens when the characters are looking right at each other, that sort of stuff. It's actually pretty fun and adds interest to what's otherwise a fairly pedestrian tale of college debauchery and angst. (Certainly it adds more than the pretentiously written voiceovers. Though I must admit that if you're going to write voiceovers to put into the mouths of characters like these, pretentiously is the way to do it.) The organizing principle of the film is to present one bravura sequence after another, but while there are a few hits (such as the revelation of the identity of Dawson's secret admirer) they're outnumbered by the misses. (There's a bit where two mothers are waiting at a restaurant for their sons to show up; cut to the sons, who are dancing in their underwear to George Michael's "Faith". Funny. But then we cut back to the mothers and then back to the sons so we can see them dance to the whole song! Like, if it was good for a joke, it's good for a music video! Egad.) All told, this is not a good movie, but it does have quite a few memorable scenes and gimmicks, which is more than some films can say.
Ken Park opens promisingly, following a kid on a skateboard through the town of Visalia, California. I love it when stories really seem bound to a particular place, and Visalia as presented in the movie strongly reminded me of where I grew up: the same colors, the same architecture, the same quality of light... different topography, of course, this being the San Joaquin Valley and not Orange County. But then, Over the Edge struck me the same way, overwhelming me with delicious nostalgia, and that was set in Colorado. But they all had that feeling of having just now been carved out of the Mexican Cession, and any place like that is going to feel like Home to me.
Now, as for the story that plays out there... it's less successful. As in The Rules of Attraction, we've got a whole bunch of kids to keep track of, but unlike that film, they don't interact until a few minutes before the movie ends. So it's basically a bunch of different movies spliced together, none of them all that interesting: no one changes, there are no character arcs to follow, it's just a Harmony Korine freakshow. You've got the kid having an affair with his girlfriend's mother (shocking!) and the one who practices autoerotic asphyxiation (shocking!) and the one whose dad tries to molest him (shocking!) but these are just situations, not stories. Some argue that in this respect the filmmakers are freeing themselves from the artifice of plot... but that seems at odds with the artifice of such extreme behavior. Though I must admit that this sort of thing does happen. I recall that when I was writing Ready, Okay! I was very careful not to overplay the abuse angle in the case of Siren Delaney, thinking it'd be so unrealistic as to undermine the story... only to discover that in real life practically everyone I knew had had to deal with worse. So, hey, maybe it is largely documentary. But even documentaries can be more focused than this.
Also, putting this movie on without knowing much about it other than that it was by a director (Larry Clark) whose previous movie (Bully) I had quite liked, I was surprised to find that there were some hardcore parts. Not shocked, since Kids and Bully had both been surrounded by critical buzz about the extent to which they pushed the envelope in this respect, but surprised, since I figured that Ken Park, like those earlier films, and like the supposedly similarly scandalous The Rules of Attraction, would pull the same tricks — humping motions shot from the waist up, say, or heads drifting out of the frame to suggest oral sex. But nope, this is the real deal. And... enh. I mean, if the filmmakers were going for shock, once the initial surprise of a hardcore scene in a non-pornographic film fades, there's not much to shock. This sort of imagery may not be common on the screens of American multiplexes, but if you're sexually active it's common in your actual life, so it's not like there should be eyeballs rolling down the aisles or anything. If they were going for porn, they also miss the mark — it's hard to imagine much that's less erotic than some of the explicit scenes in this film. So my most generous guess is that in keeping with the documentary theme, they simply said, hell with it — if we're going to include a scene with a father walking in on his daughter up to something scandalous, let's not play coy... let's have the honesty to show what he sees. I can understand that impulse. I just wish it were in the service of a better film.