Only in the Movies
|Starring:||Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, Glenn Close, Rory Culkin, William Fichtner, Ralph Fiennes, John Heard, Lauren Holly, Allison Janney, Josh Janowicz, Carrie-Ann Moss, Lou Taylor Pucci, Rita Wilson|
I’m not quite sure if “American Beauty” is to blame for the creation of the already tired “suburban dysfunction” subgenre (perhaps it can be traced back to “Blue Velvet,” or even earlier), and as much as I’m a fan of the Sam Mendes’ film, it’s already spawned a bunch of much lesser imitations. I had a brief e-mail exchange with Entertainment Insiders editor Jonathan Hickman about this topic recently, and he made an interesting point: “American Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball spurred the popularity of these kinds of films with his television series, “Six Feet Under,” which, despite its intelligence and entertainment value, turned many of the writer’s fresh insights into expired clichés. The latest result of this is director Arie Posin’s “The Chumscrubber,” a perfectly easy to sit through film, which will vanish from your memory 10 minutes after it’s ended.
“The Chumscrubber” cobbles together a variety of strange caricatures and attempts to pass them off as real people. And sure, maybe one or two of these characters would be palatable if the film wasn’t entirely populated with oddballs. It feels as if writer Zac Stanford is competing with himself to make each character more idiosyncratic than the next, basically removing any gravity from his story.
The film takes place in the quiet, faceless suburb of Hillside in an unspecified area of the U.S. (which looks a lot like Southern California). The plot is set into motion when ostracized teenager Dean (Jamie Bell) finds his drug-dealing best friend, Troy, dead in his bedroom, after having committed suicide. Dean is then the target of two classmates, a bully named Billy (Justin Chatwin) and goofy Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci), who are after Troy’s drug stash. Aiding them is their friend Crystal (Camilla Belle), who develops a sudden conflict of interest when she becomes friendly with the introverted Dean. Their grand scheme? To kidnap Dean’s younger brother, Charlie (Rory Culkin), and eventually exchange him for the drugs.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say the amateur kidnappers don’t pull off the job so smoothly, leading to a host of other complications that allow the characters plenty of chances to act even “quirkier.” These characters include Dean’s vitamin obsessed mother (Allison Janney), his opportunistic, exploitative therapist/writer father (William Fichtner), the deceased Troy’s despondent mother (Glenn Close, largely recycling her role from “The Safety of Objects”), Crystal’s lascivious mother Jerri (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Hillsides’ soon to be preeminent married couple, the self absorbed Terri (Rita Wilson) and her fiancé, the not so stable town mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes). Most of these characters, as well as a few others I haven’t mentioned, share one common trait — their complete lack of necessity in the movie.
The one unique aspect of the film is that it is more plot-driven than most movies in this genre. But of course, these obvious story mechanizations make the film feel so transparently orchestrated. Unless you’re Godard, or some other brilliant formalist, a movie generally doesn’t work as well as it could if the audience is constantly made aware of its artifice. Although I grew up in the same sort of ordinary suburb depicted in “The Chumscrubber,” I wasn’t at all able to relate to this portrait of middle class life in the ‘burbs. It felt so foreign…so inorganic…so fake. The title comes from an animated, violent video game character who takes on a life of its own and appears from time to time in the movie. This is the final superfluous ingredient in an already overcooked stew.
Any relevant observations the filmmakers have to make are primarily diminished by the lack of grounding. Although it’s tempting, I can’t completely dismiss “The Chumscrubber” because it did sufficiently entertain me, and if the movie falls short of its goals, it’s not for a lack of effort. But Posin and Stanford’s motivations feel based purely on other movies instead of reality, and it simply gives “The Chumscrubber” the vibe of being one big vanity project.
Alan Ball, please go on record and admit the suburbs aren’t as weird as you make them out to be. Just maybe you can save us from at least a few mediocre movies.