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
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.