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The Boston Phoenix Slime and Punishment

Adults do the darnedest things

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Given the recent fate of certain public officials, it's hardly surprising that bad behavior, particularly that of empowered white males, has been featured in a lot of movies lately. More surprising is that the focus hasn't been so much on the thrill of transgression as on the excruciating delight of getting caught, punished, and humiliated. There's Something About Mary, Your Friends and Neighbors, Happiness, American History X, and others to come (such as A Simple Plan) get most of their laughs and winces not from their character's misdeeds but from their painful and usually public comeuppance.

Very Bad Things, in keeping with its finger-wagging, moralistic title, raises this level of crime and punishment to hysterical, self-castigating farce. The debut feature of Chicago Hope actor Peter Berg, it exults in watching decent, ordinary people commit the inexcusable, then relishes even more the auto-da-fé of their downfall. Often hilarious, jolting, even exhilarating, Things nonetheless degenerates into an exercise in self-righteous flagellation with misogynist overtones.

The really bad thing here isn't the clueless male characters' boozing, whoring, coke snorting, and serial killing -- it's pert and driven Laura (Cameron Diaz, minus hair gel and sunny disposition), the bride-to-be of colorless stockbroker Kyle (Jon Favreau, long-suffering to the point of inertia). If her anal obsessiveness regarding the wedding preparations is any indication, Kyle's married life promises to a castrating hell. Panicking on her cell phone over such catastrophes as unpadded seats and hovering over a scale model of the reception like a demented field marshal, she provides Kyle with abundant reason to seek the temporary escape of a bachelor party in Las Vegas with his buddies.

For the most part, they too are discontented suburban drones demoralized by suffocating jobs, wives, and families. Conscience-stricken Adam (Daniel Stern) chafes under the shackles of his spoiled children and soccer-mom-from-hell wife Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn), though he gets some satisfaction from disapproving of his screw-up, loose-cannon younger brother, Michael (Jeremy Piven). Charles (Leland Orser), the blue-collar odd man out, brings a air of stunned innocence to the group. But it's Robert (Christian Slater) who's the true spirit of independence. Smooth-talking, hedonistic, utterly selfish, he's the demonic male antithesis to Laura's domesticating harpie. No wonder she looks anxious as the boys climb into Adam's prize SUV to set off for Vegas while Lois ingenuously warns, "No smoking!"

Smoking, of course, should be the least of her worries. In a vertiginously shot sequence that touches on the sickening thrill and consuming chaos of violated taboos (it's very funny, too), the partiers get stoked on booze, drugs, rock and roll, and trashy talk in their hotel room; it all climaxes when Robert introduces the inevitable stripper. Only poor Michael takes up her invitation to retire to the bathroom, with haplessly fatal results. Stuck with the corpse of a dead Asian prostitute (most of the victims in this movie are minorities), Kyle and company first resist, then succumb to Robert's silky rationalizations -- in a Nietzschean turn, he convinces them that rather than being reprehensible, evading responsibility is the truly heroic path -- and agree to dispose of their "105-pound problem" in the desert.

In real life, no doubt, that would be the end of it. In the movies, though, deeds have consequences, and then some. Dealing with the nosy security guard and the gobbet-stained handsaws is the easy part -- the real challenge comes later, with the tuxedo fittings and the rehearsal party. One by one the conspirators unravel. As the death toll mounts, Robert grows more lethally logical, Laura intensifies her Martha Stewart mania, Kyle remains passive and confused, and about two-thirds of the way through the movie the very bad things have been more than adequately illustrated.

Although Berg clearly delights in shaking off network restrictions, relishing the big screen's freedom to be graphic and outrageous, his imagination and his moral insight seem confined to the platitudes of the tube. Whereas genuine black-comic sensibilities (such as the Coen brothers in Fargo) transcend mere shock by quietly suggesting other values (such as decency, compassion, and wisdom), Berg's film can't seem to get beyond the puerile concepts of naughtiness and spanking. Very Bad Things indulges in its title indiscretions and punishes itself for them, but the film never comes close to understanding the underlying good and evil.


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