The film forecast this week is bleak, black and bad for the
disposition. Since the beginning of the year, I can’t remember seeing so many
catastrophes in such a short amount of time. Doesn’t anybody know how to make
15 Minutes , with
Robert De Niro and Ed Burns as, respectively, a celebrity cop and a New York
fire marshal who reluctantly join forces to solve a double murder, at least
tackles promising material. At a time when everybody from White House in-laws
to convicted serial killers jockey for position in prime-time Media Age sound
bites, crime, tragedy and chaos mean ratings, money and fame. It’s no wonder we
live in an age of ultimate cynicism. When the good guys meet the bad guys
searching for 15 minutes of attention on the network news, you can’t tell the
difference. Until it degenerates into conventional,
formulaic violence and mayhem, writer-director John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes seems smart and fearless.
Sadly, that feeling of freshness dissipates
faster than yesterday’s tabloid scandal.
Robert De Niro, a fine actor with a tarnished track record
who will take on any kind of project regardless of its quality as long as the
deal is right, plays a colorful and celebrated detective who dunks his head in
a urinal of ice
cameras. He’s already been on the cover of People
magazine, and he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in the get-famous business.
When a couple of killers from Eastern Europe arrive in New York posing as
tourists, brutally murdering two fellow illegal immigrants and a prostitute and
burning down a tenement building, Mr. De
Niro’s cop seizes the opportunity for more media hype.
In the investigation that follows, he finds himself saddled,
for some unexplainable reason, with a fireman (Mr. Burns) who tags along like a
protégé. (Since when does a New York fireman arrest muggers and race down
Madison Avenue firing handguns? Has Mayor Giuliani heard about this?) Joining
them on the spree is Kelsey Grammer as the corrupt star of a tabloid TV show
who will stop at nothing to get a scoop on the air before Dan Rather.
Meanwhile, the two killers on a rampage do some high-profile flirting with the
media themselves. One of them is a movie buff with a stolen digital-video
camcorder who registers in hotels as “Frank Capra.” As the horror escalates,
the satire peters out until there is nobody left to root for. The two maniacs
videotape their crimes, the TV star shows the brutal murders on national TV to
the kind of bloodthirsty viewing public that causes riots at Hannibal screenings, and everybody hires
a spin doctor. Even the psychos, obsessed with media stardom, employ big-shot
defense lawyers who fight for movie and book rights. When one of the wackos
claims insanity-an idea he gets from a guest on Roseanne -you know an American justice system based on media madness
has gone to hell in a sound bite.
Up to a point, 15 Minutes
is gritty enough to be a viable thriller and surreal enough to be a glaring,
in-your-face sendup of today’s corrosive media landscape in a cinéma vérité style. But eventually, Mr.
Herzfeld the director loses his grip to Mr. Herzfeld the writer, and the movie
jumps all over the place at cross purposes with itself. In a subplot I am
obligated to withhold, Mr. De Niro meets a fate unworthy of a Dick Tracy
comic-strip villain and the film never regains its footing. This is not a
star-driven action vehicle; it’s a black comedy about the feeding frenzy
created by a hyperventilating media that is clearly out of control, in which
there are no heroes-just hacks desperate for their 15 minutes on camera, with
barrels of gut-wrenching violence thrown in for distraction.
In these circumstances, two actors I’ve never heard of
literally steal the picture. Karel Roden as Emil, the Czech bank robber who
would massacre a Saturday-night crowd in Times Square for a chance to be
interviewed by Cokie and Sam on Sunday morning, and Oleg Taktarov as his
movie-maven Russian sidekick, Oleg, are on the screen as often as Mr. De Niro
and Mr. Burns, which shows you how confused and fragmented the movie is. They
literally chew whatever scenery isn’t nailed down, demanding-and getting-most
of the attention. Andy Warhol was right: Sooner or later, everybody will be
famous for 15 minutes. Your turn is next.
Samuel Jackson, Homeless and Hairy
Valentine is another preposterous muddle masquerading as a crime thriller.
This time Samuel L. Jackson, weighted down under 40 pounds of dreadlocks, plays
Romulus, a filthy, disenfranchised former musician turned homeless bum who
lives in a cave in the middle of New York City. (Duh.) When a junkie hustler is
found frozen, hanging from a tree outside the cave, Romulus decides to solve
the case. This is more complicated than it seems, since Romulus speaks in an
incoherent language that is half mumbo-jumbo and half J. Alfred Prufrock. Worse
still, his embarrassed and estranged daughter is a New York police officer.
But this is the movies, where a grotesque madman can hear
voices, see visions, blame everything on an invisible Mephistopheles called
Stuyvesant and sincerely believe Hell is located in the light on top of the
Empire State Building, and still miraculously find sponsors in a fabulous
penthouse where the society set encourages him to use the shower, the Ralph
Lauren towels and the Boesendorfer to play a classical concerto. Ah, those guys
and gals at Denise Rich’s parties are such suckers for Scriabin.
Eventually, this crazy wacko invades the celebrity-studded
art world of a famous photographer (Colm Feore) suspected of torturing the
hustler to death, sleeps with the photographer’s sister (Ann Magnuson) and
becomes the protégé of a bankruptcy lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall) who has a
passion for lime rickeys. Nobody raises an eyebrow. “Hey, Caveman, this
detective work-with all due respect, maybe it’s not for you,” says the chief
police officer investigating the case. Before The Caveman’s Valentine mercifully ends, we are treated to the
sight of a naked boy strung up on a meat hook to an aria by Donizetti and
imaginary moth seraphs the size of helicopters flying around Romulus’
This ludicrous mix of neo-Gothic NYPD Blue and Grand Guignol was directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose
promising debut film, Eve’s Bayou ,
also starred Mr. Jackson but fared much better. She is still unpredictable and
he is still blissfully ignorant of all limitations, but The Caveman’s Valentine is dead in the
The point, I guess, is “Take the time to look behind the façade of even the
most repugnant creature on the street, and you might find a sensitive,
talented, intelligent lost soul behind the dirt.” Show me a cave dwelling in
Central Park and I’ll volunteer hot coffee and Krispy Kremes, but I have yet to
meet a raving homeless nut on the streets of Manhattan who could play a
Scriabin piano concerto.
Spies Like Woody
Company Man , an alleged farce that has been gathering dust on a lab shelf for two
years, is beyond description. (That is not a recommendation.) The diabolical
brain child of Douglas McGrath, a former staff writer for Saturday Night Live , it’s a deadly fiasco about a wimpy grammar
teacher and driver’s-ed instructor from Greenwich, Conn., named Quimp
(shamelessly played by Mr. McGrath) who pretends to be a secret agent with the
C.I.A. to impress his shrewish, social-climbing wife (Sigourney Weaver). When a
Russian ballet dancer (Ryan Phillippe) defects in his student-driver vehicle,
the C.I.A., to avoid embarrassment, puts Quimp on the payroll. (Duh.)
Sparing you the labored and contrived details, we cut to the
chase: This dope ends up in a revolution just as a swishy, flamboyant Batista
(Alan Cumming) is being overthrown by a strutting, numbskull Castro (Anthony
LaPaglia) in an unnamed Third World banana republic. (Duh.) Within a mere 81
minutes that seem more like 81 days, the imbecilic Quimp catches a spy (Denis
Leary) who confesses just to stop him from diagramming his sentences, and
fights the Communists with the aid of a mad guerrilla (John Turturro) while Ms.
Weaver writes the whole thing down for a trashy first-person best seller. Woody
Allen drops in from time to time in a Pepe le Moko Casbah beret as a nutty
government agent who lost his book of secret codes in a Russian brothel,
resulting in the hanging of 45 C.I.A. operatives. The moronic cast members end
up impersonating a rock band during the Bay of Pigs, and Marilyn Monroe and
President John F. Kennedy are among the period celebs disgraced before it all
grinds to a welcome halt.
It’s a rare opportunity to see so many accomplished people
coerced into making such donkeys of themselves, and Mr. McGrath is the bottom
feeder. As the writer-director of the Jane Austen movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, he won deserving praise, but as the star
and co-director (with Peter Askin) of this abomination, he displays no talent
whatsoever. He hasn’t a shred of screen charisma and demonstrates zero
knowledge of such basic requirements as how to deliver a punch line or where to
move the camera. Company Man is like
a long, painful, Percodan-deprived Saturday
Night Live skit directed by NBC ushers and is about as amusing as
Suburb , a cheerful
off-Broadway musical at the York Theatre in the Citicorp Building, is aimed at
New Yorkers seeking the small-town peace of mind that comes with soda fountains
on Main Street, shady lawns, lower school taxes and an S.U.V. in every garage.
Stuart (James Ludwig) is an account manager in advertising who longs for
chlorophyll and ragweed pollen while his pregnant wife, Alison (Jacquelyn
Piro), is content with subways, panhandlers and traffic jams. Neither has a
clue what horrors lurk in suburbia. Alix Korey, the punchy comedienne with a
voice of stainless steel who plays the aggressive real estate broker with
“collagen lips and post-partum hips” hell-bent on selling them their dream
house, isn’t about to tell them until the house is in escrow and her commission
is in the bank.
The songs are, predictably, about lawnmowers, do-it-yourself
home repairs (“What good is a castle / Without any hassle?”), commuter trains,
shopping malls and backyard barbecues. The score by Robert Cohen and David
Javerbaum, which recently won the Richard Rodgers Development Award, features
witty rhymes set to less-than-memorable melodies, and the eight-member cast
includes Jennie Eisenhower, the perky daughter of Julie Nixon and David
Eisenhower and the granddaughter of President Richard Nixon.
The entire ensemble works hard under the pleasant direction
of Jennifer Uphoff Gray, but the charming, handsome and thoroughly ingenuous
James Ludwig and the brassy, hilarious Ms. Korey are outstanding. They’ve both
been dressing up these little off-Broadway musicals too long. Isn’t it
perfectly obvious they’re ready for Broadway stardom?