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Memphis Flyer Paying Your Dues

The Downfall of '54' and the Burnout of Frankie Lymon in 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love.'

By Susan Ellis

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  You would think a movie set against the backdrop of Studio 54 – where the late Seventies’ most infamous celebrities such as Halston, Warhol, and Liza drank away their nights, where the walls oozed with body fluids, where the minglers were coked or Quaaluded or both – would be luridly entertaining. There’s certainly enough material there (witness Christopher Haden-Guest’s nearly 400-page book The Last Party). But 54 is a rather pat boy-done-good, boy-comes-to-his-senses story that doesn’t get down and disco at all.

54 is written and directed by Mark Christopher, who is making his feature-film debut. His short film Alkali, Iowa did well enough on the festival circuit to nab him an exclusive two-picture deal with Miramax. And he is lucky to have it, since it gives him another shot after this very amateurish effort.

The movie follows Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a Jersey kid whose dreams lie only three miles away in New York. One night, while out partying with his friends, he gets plucked from the crowd outside Studio 54 by the owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) himself. Shortly thereafter, he lands a gig as a bartender there, where he gets to rub shoulders and other parts of his bare-chested, satin-shorted body with various celebrities. Other perks of his job include having his pick of drugs and models and meeting Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a soap star from his neck of the woods. This dumb kid, who’s never heard of Errol Flynn, is now at center stage at the world’s most exclusive party being manhandled by the rich and famous, and he’s got the clap to prove it.

The inner structure of 54 – the bartenders, the busboys, the hat-check girls – serves as a makeshift family. Shane is closest to Anita (Salma Hayek), a wannabe disco diva, and her husband Greg (Brecken Meyer), a busboy who’ll never get a coveted bartender job because he’s too short and won’t blow Steve Rubell.

Alas, all jobs have their down side, as Shane learns one climactic night when he gets dumped by his girlfriend, fights with Anita and Greg, and watches the beloved Disco Dottie (played by Ellen Dow, the Rappin’ Granny in The Wedding Singer, who could very possibly mine this Granny thing through the next decade when we rediscover the Lambada), expire in a drugged spasm.

A bummer, sure – like we care. 54 seems to be taking a page from Boogie Nights (“they mentioned Lee Majors. Ha ha”). And to its credit, 54 doesn’t skate around consequences of the high-life as much as Boogie Nights. However, toward the end of Boogie Nights, you had a certain fondness for the empty-headed Dirk Diggler. Shane, for all his stunted ambition, is harder to hold onto. He’s not too sweet or too amoral or too anything. He’s just another lug blessed with a head full of golden curls being dragged through a simple-minded plot-line – awkwardly sprinkled with actors playing Capote and Warhol and the like to make it authentic – that never truly takes advantage of the energy or rush of a time and a place so bent on self-destruction.

The single gem in 54 is the performance of Mike Myers as the enigmatic Steve Rubell. Myers tucks away his notorious mugging to put a touch of grace in his portrayal of man who happily agreed when others pointed out the flaws in his methods and boasted about his illegal accounting practices, knowing full well that the party would come to an end and that his role was to enjoy it while it lasted.

Why Do Fools Fall In Love

During the final credits of the Frankie Lymon biopic Why Do Fools Fall in Love, actual footage is rolled of Lymon singing “Goody Goody.” It serves two purposes: to show what all the fuss is about over this sweet-faced kid with the girl-high voice and to refuel the wonder of how this preteen doo-wop singer could waste it all away and die of a drug overdose at the age of 25.

Lymon did a whole lot of living in those short years, and Why Do Fools Fall in Love works through them via a series of flashbacks told by his three wives, each claiming in court two decades after his death to be the rightful heir to his estate.

Wife number one is Elizabeth (Vivica A. Fox), a down-on-her-luck single mother who meets Frankie (Larenz Tate) just at the beginning of his downslide. She’s the one who puts up with his stealing and shelters him from the side effects of his drug use. Wife number two is Zola (Halle Berry), the female member of the Platters who knew Frankie during his glory days and takes him in when he attempts a comeback. Wife number three is Emira (Lela Rochon), a simple, Georgia schoolteacher, who is wooed by Frankie while he’s on leave from the army, and she’s the one who buries him. None of them get off easy, and each feels entitled to some sort of reparation.

Elizabeth and Zola are both world-weary women who encountered each other before in their dealings with Frankie. They bicker and shove and throw out insults about each other’s hair. Emira is a different breed, and Elizabeth and Zola are a little mystified at first about Frankie’s draw to her. In the end, though, they recognize their common bond and the joys and miseries that accompanied involvement with Frankie.

While the scenes in which the women sass it out provide comic relief, they are also a little distracting. Mainly, this is due to Berry, who looks unlined and perfect when playing a 48-year-old, while the other two submitted to body-padding and aging makeup. Also thrown in for good measure is a courtroom cameo by Little Richard (he toured with Lymon), who gets to work in his whole architect-of-rock-and-roll bit while testifying, which means nothing to the moment at hand, no matter how amusing it is to hear him tell the room to shut up. (Little Richard, in fact, should have his very own biopic.)

Why Do Fools Fall in Love is at its best while replaying Lyman’s heyday. The screaming audience, dressed in their finest and crowded in to see a packed lineup of the biggest singing stars of their day, will make you wistful.

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