Travolta’s Mission: Incomprehensible … Hollywood on Ecstasy

Travolta’s Mission:

Incomprehensible

At the movies, incomprehensible gibberish has become a way

of life, but it usually takes time before a bad movie really stinks. Swordfish wastes no time. It cuts

straight to the chase. It is, to my knowledge, the first piece of trash to

declare its own incompetence in the first sentence of its moronic screenplay.

Close-up of a bloated scuzzball who claims to be what’s left of John Travolta:

“The problem with Hollywood is they make shit. Unbelievable, unremarkable

shit.” The next two hours is slavishly devoted to proving it.

I’d like to tell you just how bad Swordfish really is, but since it doesn’t make one minute of sense,

no sane description is possible. There is something about a secret slush fund

of drug-laundering money (code-named Swordfish) started years ago by J. Edgar

Hoover that is sitting in a vault at the World Banc Investors Group in Los

Angeles just begging to be stolen. Mr. Travolta plays a maniac in an oily Clara

Bow hairdo who may or may not be a spy for some organization or other. He wants

the money to finance a wacko scheme to wipe out world terrorism. Between savage

killings and high-speed chases, he gives movie reviews. (I’m not making this

up, although everyone in the movie seems to be.)

Halle Berry plays his associate and sometime lover, who may

or may not be a secret agent for the government’s corrupt Drug Enforcement

Administration. Sam Shepard plays a U.S. Senator who hires them to steal the

money, then betrays them when his position as chairman of a joint subcommittee

on crime is threatened by the F.B.I. Mr. Travolta descends by helicopter,

blasts the Senator to liverwurst in the middle of a trout stream, then dispatches

Ms. Berry to find a computer hacker to break all the codes in the bank. The

hacker they seduce-in more ways than one-is Hugh Jackman, the greatest

Australian import since the koala bear. He literally steals the picture as the

hacker with a prison record who needs money to rescue his daughter from his

ex-wife, a porn star, and her new husband, a porn king. Mr. Jackman is given 60

seconds to break every code on the Internet while there’s a mouth on his groin

and a gun to his head.

In the preposterous cyber crimes that result, an entire bus

carrying 22 hostages wearing explosives and radio-electronic dog collars is

lifted by helicopter and flown through the air above Los Angeles, bodies fly

through space in slow motion, people crash and burn as much real estate as the

market will allow, and there’s more broken glass than at a Polish wedding.

Filthy one-liners pass for dialogue, eardrum-puncturing rap songs pass for

music, computer technology passes for a plot, and the incoherence is

stupefying. Rarely has such a magnum of amateurishness been uncorked: The

director, a hack graduate of Nike commercials named Dominic Sena, lacks the

talent to make a single reaction shot believable, and the screenplay, by a

witless poseur named Skip Woods, seems to have been scrawled on the wall of a

lunatic asylum, then assembled tile by tile. Nobody has a clue what they’re

doing or what the hell the movie is about in the first place. It’s the kind of

head-scratcher in which one or two reels could be mischievously transposed, or even

projected backward, and nobody would know the difference.

At the end, nothing is explained, dead characters come back

to life, and the audience goes “Huh?” The camera loves the charisma of Hugh

Jackman more than any male star since Cary Grant. He’s the only reason to

suffer through this hateful charade, but he only makes you want to see him in

something better. Everything else in Swordfish

stinks on ice.

Hollywood on Ecstasy

When Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming were co-starring

in the raunchy Broadway revival of Cabaret

two years ago, the subject backstage got around to the appalling state of the

current cinema. They decided to pool their talents and make their own movie.

The result is The Anniversary Party ,

a low-budget dissection of a Hollywood marriage on the rocks that they co-wrote

and co-directed, using fast, inexpensive new digital technology that allowed

them to shoot and edit on videotape. Most digital movies look coarse, grainy

and ugly, like old kinescopes of “live” TV shows. But these two Wunderkinder were fortunate to enlist

the assistance of veteran cinematographer John Bailey, who also was working for

the first time in the realm of digital video. Technically, The Anniversary Party achieves the smooth, seamless look of film.

Artistically, it is somewhat less fluent, but it’s an admirable first effort.

Shot in 19 days with an impressive cast of friends who had a

couple of weeks free between projects, and using three video cameras at the

same time, the film captures fast and fleeting moments of intimacy within the

larger structure of a collaborative ensemble, moving noisily and simultaneously

through a swanky house in a Hollywood canyon overlooking the lights of the city

below. The action takes place during the course of a single night, as a group

of friends gather at the home of Joe and Sally (Mr. Cumming and Ms. Leigh) for

what begins as a conventional sixth wedding anniversary celebration and ends in

a free-for-all of explosive tempers, painful character revelations and raw

nerves. Joe is a hip British writer whose latest novel is being turned into a

movie he will direct himself, and Sally is a burned-out film star who is not

being considered for the leading role-so there’s already a lot of anxiety and

resentment smoldering beneath the surface of their frozen smiles before the

guests arrive. When they do, things disintegrate quickly.

Kevin Kline, as a narcissistic actor who is co-starring with

Sally in her latest film, and his real-life wife Phoebe Cates, as his seemingly

devoted actress-wife and Sally’s best friend, who has given up her career to

devote herself to full-time motherhood, arrive with their real-life children in

tow. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Skye, the beautiful and flaky flavor of the month

chosen for the role Sally covets (a role based on Sally herself) because she is

so much younger. Sally hates her on sight, especially after Skye lavishes her

with insincere compliments. “When I was in rehab the second time, they wouldn’t

let us watch your drug-addict movie because you were too real!” she gushes. You

can cut the tension with a butter knife.

More guests only add smoke to cinders already waiting to

ignite. Joe has invited two former lovers, a man who proposes an indelicate

toast (Matt McGrath) and a sexy, spaced-out photographer (Jennifer Beals) who

brings an anniversary gift of 16 Ecstasy pills. Sally’s director (John C.

Reilly) intimates to Joe that Sally is wrecking his movie; the director’s

neurotic wife (Jane Adams) is in the obvious crucial stages of her own nervous

breakdown; and Sally and Joe’s business managers (John Benjamin Hickey and

Parker Posey) follow their hosts around waving income-tax returns and darkly

warning of approaching bankruptcy. To make matters worse, the guest list also

includes the neighbors from hell, a litigious couple who tape Joe and Sally’s

barking dog for evidence in a possible lawsuit.

As the worst Hollywood party you’ve ever witnessed

progresses to a disastrous finale, everybody takes the Ecstasy and falls into

the pool, a harmless game of charades turns dangerously into a painful truth

game, the family dog disappears, Joe and Sally’s anniversary builds into a

screaming match, and you find yourself grateful to get out alive. The Anniversary Party makes valid points

about empty values and the wasted lives of second-rate people who get paid

fortunes for their lack of talent. But empty-headed Hollywood louts have always

been easy targets, and the ones depicted here whine and blather too incessantly

to hold interest for an entire screenplay. The film sags sluggishly as its

neurotic characters grow wearying, and for all of its attempts to shed new

light on the pitfalls of modern marriage, it amasses more than its share of

clichés (is everybody crazy in Los Angeles?). Still, Mr. Cumming and Ms. Leigh

have an ear for industryspeak, their characters do have a ring of truth

(admittedly, they are based on the neurotic people in their own lives), and

they know their way around a good line.

The monster party they create is nothing more than The Big Chill in Laurel Canyon, but it

manages to reflect some of the Hollywood parties I’ve seen firsthand, in which

the hosts often celebrate the most meaningful professional and private

milestones in their lives surrounded by people they hate, people they know too

well for comfort, or people they don’t know at all. The viewer becomes the

camera, moving in and out of the action, isolating sections of behavior and

eavesdropping on conversations, the way you do at parties. The ensemble

characters they’ve created may grow tedious and exasperating, but I’ll say this

for Mr. Cumming and Ms. Leigh: They know how to get maximum sincerity and force

from the actors they’ve hired to play them.

Gwyneth Paltrow, distanced from the pressures of big-budget

deadlines, is especially breezy and confident when she’s given the time to grow

at her own pace in a small part. As the icon of the moment in a town where

today’s marketable commodity is usually tomorrow’s unreturned phone call, she

is more telling than you might imagine when one partygoer says “You’re acting

like an obsessive, fragile neurotic” and she sweetly replies, “But I am an obsessive, fragile neurotic!” For

a first film, The Anniversary Party

is less awkward than many, and more rewarding than most.

Still Selling Nixon

Jokes

A lot has changed since the Smothers Brothers were kicked

off the air for antiwar political jokes back in 1969. Now, for some reason that

makes sense only to their agent, they’re making a comeback-not on television,

but onstage at Feinstein’s at the Regency.

Tom is the balding older brother with Bugs Bunny ears who

plays the guitar. Dick is the younger straight man with the bass who appears

terminally alarmed. Their act consists of vintage patter, two stand-up mikes

and a TV set. Tom sings “Don’t pet the dog / Cause he hasn’t been fixed / So

don’t pet the dog / Or he’ll be taking your leg to the dance” while Dick looks

stricken. As the Yo-Yo Man, Tom shoots the moon, walks the dog and rocks the

baby to the tune of a cha-cha. Don’t ask.

I have nothing against these fellows just because their

heads have turned gray, but unfortunately, so have their Nixon jokes. Their

frat-house humor always eluded me, but now that they’re old enough to own a

senior bus pass, it eludes me even more. They’re products of the angry 60′s-subversive

comics who became peace-movement celebrities like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete

Seeger, but never moved on like Jane Fonda. Now, with nothing left to be

subversive about, when they’re not singing madrigals and spirituals, they show

home movies and clips from their old TV shows with everybody from Judy Garland

to the Beatles.

If you’re an aging flower child who’s been living in a time

capsule since 1969, this is an act for you. For me, the Smothers brothers are

as dated as Chubby Checker, the Automat and a good 10-cent cigar.