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Review: Darkness in 'Very Bad Things' nearly works

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 03, 1998 11:47:25 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- At first, it seemed to me that Peter Berg's attempt at a pitch-black comedy, "Really Bad Things," was actually going to work. Another float in the "People Acting Nasty Right There in Front of You" parade that's been marching through our theaters for the past couple of years, the film boasts several respectable performances.

Berg also knows how to film things without setting off visual Roman candles to prove his abilities. The movie doesn't look like the work of a first-time director, that's for sure. However, Berg also wrote the screenplay, which quickly punished me for my rare display of optimism.

The setup was the part that I found myself enjoying, and I think that's probably because of the bantering rhythm of the actors involved. After a brief introductory sequence, five old buddies hop in a van and drive to Las Vegas for the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties. Gee, that sounds like fun. Little do they know, though, that they're going to end up killing a couple people in the process.

Theatrical preview for "Very Bad Things"

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Kyle (Jon Favreau) is the groom, about to get hitched to a self-obsessed young woman named Laura (Cameron Diaz). Laura is back at the ranch, kvetching over wedding plans while the boys are supposed to be out having a good time. The other revelers are a sociopathic real estate salesman (Christian Slater, looking great in something besides a government-issue jumpsuit); Adam and Michael (Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven, both of whom are very good), a couple of businessman brothers who openly despise each other; and an auto mechanic named Charles (Leland Orser) who's so quiet he's practically not there.

Trouble troubles them

Kyle has promised Laura that he'll be good during the trip, but once the crew hits Vegas, that plan flies right out the window. We get to see the whole bunch of them snorting up tons of coke, drinking whiskey shots, smoking dope, and just generally asking for trouble.

It gets there real fast, too, in the form of a sexy prostitute (Carla Scott) who's about to wind up dead on the bathroom floor. That twist comes courtesy of Michael, who accidentally shoves the girl against the wall during a full-service visit, impaling her on a coat hook. (Creative Stealing 101 -- somebody's watched "Midnight Express.")

Of course, when you do something like this in a modern comedy, you don't call the cops. Slater convinces the other guys that the wise move would be to clean up the bathroom, sneak the body out of the hotel, and bury it in the desert. Not so fast, though. Pretty soon a hotel security man shows up to see what all the noise is about. He spots the dead girl just as he's leaving, so Slater takes it upon himself to stab the guy in the heart with a corkscrew.

ALSO: Christian Slater emerges from 'Bad Things' with new outlook

Unbelievably foul, gruesome scenes

That leads to a truly gruesome, highly unamusing scene in which the buddies press their weight against the bathroom door as the victim pounds on it, screaming and gurgling himself to death. It's unbelievably foul, but not as foul as the sequence where the bodies get hacksawed into pieces and crammed into suitcases. (Later, Stern unbelievably insists on a proper Jewish burial for the victims -- I suppose this is included because simple respect for the dead is hilariously old-fashioned -- so the guys have to sort through the various body parts and match them with the proper torsos. Right there in front of you.)

This leads to an extended series of meltdowns by the participants once they get back home. The tension only escalates as Kyle and Laura's wedding day draws near. One character or another starts sweating, shaking, and screaming about every 10 or so minutes, with the first to lose it being Stern's Adam. Everyone's understandably afraid that Adam's going to draw the cops' attention, but that's all taken care of when his brother runs him over with a car, smashing him all over his prized minivan.

It's "sick" moments like that, delivered back-to-back until you finally come to the conclusion that Berg figures an insult to your humanity is the same thing as making a coherent statement about the corruption of moral values ... all the while hoping that people will pack the theater to see the corruption on a big screen. There are seriously bloody interludes throughout the movie (that bathroom looks like a slaughterhouse even before they start chopping); I just can't figure out why I'm supposed to be so impressed by it.

Performances surprisingly effective

Diaz, for some reason, is repeatedly drawn to self-consciously grotesque little projects that usually don't accomplish much of anything at all, but make a huge mess while not accomplishing it. My guess is that enough buffed-and-polished movie types called the scripts "edgy," so she figured they were worth a shot.

"Edgy" (the third most often cited word in the industry, right after "money" and "money") is a generic catch phrase that implies free-spirited bravery on the part of the people who are making the film. The assumption is that they're just too honest to water down the material because people with manners might find the vast majority of it pointlessly garish. (You can also substitute "in your face" for "edgy," if you want to mix it up a little.)

It's too bad, then, that so many talented actors have wasted their energy on this thing. Slater, who often annoys me, is surprisingly effective. His twisted, New Age reasoning as to why it's spiritually copacetic to chop up murder victims is delivered with a very charismatic conviction, even as he's making you gag. Stern is also impressive, going easy on his goofy-guy shtick for once. He quite unexpectedly gives his most complex performance since "Diner."

The real revelation, though, is Priven, who's so wholly believable he milks any possibility of nervous laughter out of his scenes. Michael is a shmuck who doesn't believe he's a shmuck, which forces him to grasp desperately for an experience that's beyond the reach of his overachieving brother. And, boy, does he get one. Judging from his solid, if not particularly exciting, TV work, you'd never know that Priven is capable of this kind of performance.

It's extremely lousy material, but these guys make the most of it. Just don't interpret that to mean that you should sit through the movie. A little self-respect might do us all a bit of good.

"Very Bad Things" is a smorgasbord of illegal, vile, and bloody. You get bad language, drugs, nudity, sex, accidental death, purposeful dismemberment, murder, and (of course) no actual moral. This, by the way, is Diaz's third movie in recent memory that has to do with her having difficulty pulling off a wedding. Your theory is as good as mine, but probably not as good as Matt Dillon's. Rated R. 101 minutes.

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