18 July 2012

Retro Review: Very Bad Things (1998)



D-

Very Bad Things
1998, 100mins, 18
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Peter Berg
Cast includes: Jon Favreau, Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Jeremy Piven, Leland Orser, Daniel Stern
UK Release Date: 29th January 1999

Sometimes you watch a film and just can’t quite get it out of your head. Positive examples of this over the last few years include Christopher Nolan’s trippy “Inception” and last year’s invigorating animation “Rango”. For whatever reason these pictures stay lodged in your stream of consciousness for days, demanding to be thought about and viewed again when they hit home video. However there are occasions in which a piece of art can occupy your brain for all the wrong reasons.  Watching something that’s bizarrely misjudged, yet concrete in its ambitions can lead to just as much debate and consideration, there’s nothing quite like a bad film that has all its convictions and hopes set firmly in the corner of “what the hell were they thinking?”. Anybody can make a bland, disposable or insufferably dumb flick, but it takes someone special, or possibly with genuine talent and visionary tendencies to turn in something as rough and rotten as the sort of work I’m highlighting. “Very Bad Things” is one such effort, a ridiculously over the top and vile little comedy, pitched so rigidly in the camp of dark comedy that any sort of artistic sunshine feels forever absent. Directed by Peter Berg (who would later helm the semi-impressive Will Smith superhero adventure “Hancock”), “Very Bad Things” is a fascinating study in misguided storytelling, screenwriting and characterisation. It’s an incredibly troubling product, a genuinely cruel tale that skips the laughs and lunges at the most despicable tendencies of man. Purely for your entertainment of course.

Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau) is about to wed uptight but affable Laura (Cameron Diaz), looking forward to the classy service, but firstly awaiting his Vegas bound Bachelor party. Alongside buddies Charles (Leland Orser), Michael (Jeremy Piven), Adam (Daniel Stern) and the unsettling Boyd (Christian Slater), Kyle enjoys a night of gambling, booze and drugs. Boyd arranges a visit from a prostitute; Kyle declines her services out of loyalty to Laura, giving Michael first dibs on the frisky escort. However during some rough sex the prostitute is accidentally killed, but when a security guard comes inquiring about noise and catches sight of her corpse, there’s nothing accidental about the way Boyd offs him. Now the guys face a choice. Do they confess and become convicted murderers and accomplices, or do they bury the bodies in the Nevada wild? Opting for the latter seems initially easier, but on their return home guilt arises and suspicions mount, leading the secret to spiral way out of control.

It’s tough to imagine that anybody either making the film or distributing it ever thought it was funny. “Very Bad Things” is a portrait of horrible people doing horrible things for 100 minutes, Berg and his cast smugly assuming that by aiming for the most depraved tone possible, they’re being edgy and intelligent. I don’t consider myself a prude and much less easily offended, but some of the material in “Very Bad Things” is just unspeakably crass, and the joyless cast only further dampen the supposed party. It’s an unusual ensemble and not one without value in principal, but on this occasion the disgusting characterisation and lack of chemistry between them sink the ship. Slater winks and lies his way through the flick in the style of “Heathers”, but here he has no Winona Ryder to play off, just a handful of gormless comics occupying equally distasteful skins. Favreau and Orser are the dullest of the group and Piven is his usual slimy and unfunny self. More interesting is Stern’s Adam, the only one of the bunch bothered by manslaughter and murder, yet so cowardly is the fashion he deals with the situation that it becomes impossible to engage with him. As an onscreen gang they have no spark or zeal, it’s a lifeless troupe of clowns mucking around in the sourest manner possible.

Murder can be amusing. Just look at large chunks of the Coens’ repertoire or even last summer’s “Horrible Bosses” for proof. However watching Jeremy Piven thrusting into a hooker as she cracks her skull doesn’t really tickle me that much, less so the sight of an innocent man begging for his life as he bleeds to death in a locked bathroom. Yet Berg treats these moments and several others of an equally inappropriate ilk as the set-pieces for his dark examination of douchebag culture, scrambling around desperately for giggles amidst the grimy context. A single sequence in the film stands out as well devised, one of the men’s wives interviewing them to try and understand the nature of their trip to Vegas. It’s a tense scene, well shot and with the actors breaking out of their lethargic slump, but even it is sullied by a final feat of callousness come the end.

The picture breaks into a bloody frenzy during the third act presenting carnage in the most predictable way possible. It’s a technically proficient effort; Berg showcasing some of the pizazz that would later get him inducted into the blockbusting inner circle, but one has to seriously deliberate over the tastelessness of the material he’s concocted. Maybe if the movie had generated some genuine laughs or displayed an iota of wit, I might be more forgiving of its vulgar sensibility, but the combination of weak-minded farce and tawdry bravado is too much to stomach in this instance, the picture going down as smoothly as raw poultry or spoiled eggs.

I detested “Very Bad Things”, a disappointing revelation given that the project has amassed some love in the wake of its admittedly patchy reception in 1998. Those interested in film and comedy should watch it, merely as an indicator of how miscalculated things can get. Paired alongside the other recent and genuinely enjoyable bachelor party flick “The Hangover” it could make for a fascinating study, a certifiable showcase in proving that being left of field or politically incorrect isn’t enough, you need good jokes and performances as well. “Very Bad Things” is an ugly 90s comedy, one best forgotten, although erasing something so repugnant from your mind is probably easier said than done.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012




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