Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Last Call

By Hadley Hury

MARCH 8, 1999: 

200 Cigarettes

Right up to the last minute, which in this case is the ringing in of New Year’s 1982, the characters of 200 Cigarettes try desperately to keep their options open. The mellowness of the ’70s is quaint history, and as Ben Affleck, in the role of bartender, third-year law-school student, and scion to a real estate baron, says: “Reaganomics! We’d be stupid not to take every opportunity.” The film follows several loosely linked plot-lines of twentysomething New Yorkers out to have a good time on New Year’s Eve. Each embodies either the detached self-absorption of the Me Decade or its determination to succeed, to win; and on the holiday most notorious for taking stock, it is the emotional clock that is ticking the loudest. These characters are in search of love, either the real thing or some minimally acceptable tryst that will at least get their sexual egos on the witching-hour scoreboard. Dressed in their postmodern best and wearing their irony on their sleeves, they cruise the East Village punk clubs, Soho lofts, coffee shops, and the holiday-hyped streets of the city, to the cool, edgy sounds of the Cars, Blondie, and Elvis Costello.

Director Risa Bramon Garcia and writer Shana Larsen have attracted a shrewd and expressive cast to bring these parallel picaresque odysseys to life. Unlike the recent, similarly structured Playing by Heart (whose long roster included Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, and Dennis Quaid), this script gives at least some of the characters enough screen time and development to accrue depth. Although much of 200 Cigarettes is slick and utterly unmemorable, it is never less than enjoyable light entertainment. And in the hands of some of its actors — most notably Paul Rudd, Martha Plimpton, Courtney Love, and Dave Chappelle — the film transcends its more modest ambitions and becomes a showcase for some funny, eccentric, and surprisingly moving performances.

Plimpton’s Monica is a droll neurotic who puts her tattered self-esteem on the line by hosting a New Year’s Eve party. Convinced that no one will show up, she berates herself: “I must be mad. This is a sick form of self-torture. Only the people I hate will show up, the ex-boyfriends with their new-and-improved dates, the losers. … ” As Monica’s worst fears come more or less true over the course of the evening, they conflate with her holiday vulnerability into a towering inferno of immolating self-doubt. Plimpton, always an adventurous actor, is hilarious; her sense of pacing and tone are daring but impeccable, and she makes the character simultaneously ridiculous and sympathetic. (Her reaction to a famous scene in a television rerun of Love Story is alone worth the price of admission.)

If any of the storylines is more central, it is the emotional tug-of-war between Kevin (Rudd) and Lucy (Love), old friends at a defining crossroads in their relationship. Kevin has just lost his girlfriend and is depressed and querulous; Rudd does impressive work with what might have been an uninvolving and one-note role. And as the unattached Lucy — who has gotten him out of his apartment for the evening and who puts up with his whining for reasons that become clearer as the story unfolds — Love is powerfully affecting. Her features (which the French might charitably call jolie laide) convey both Lucy’s well-camouflaged tenderness and her savvy, spirited strength.

Affleck, the biggest box-office name in the movie, is stuck in the slightest and least successful series of vignettes. It’s a vanity cameo appearance, and Affleck’s almost slumming jokeyness and insincerity simply don’t match the serious comic work of his peers. His scenes are the only ones in the film that lack credibility.

One of the real joys of 200 Cigarettes is Chappelle’s festive cab driver. Like the preceding era whose name he wears like a badge of honor, the Disco Cabbie dispenses tokes and philosophical bon mots to his fares, exhorting them to eschew up-tightness and hostility. As the cold, brittle New York night hurtles by outside, and the various plots converge, the Disco Cabbie nurturingly ferries the lost, the lonely, and the driven, sustaining an environment of spiritual uplift and earthy advice backgrounded by an 8-track tape of “Rock the Boat.” Chappelle’s performance is inspired.

8 MM

8mm may not be quite as bad as most early criticism would indicate. But it does seem an enormous waste of effort, and it is as dispirited and dispiriting as you may already have heard. Director Joel Schumacher seems titillated by the private-eye mystery plot involving hard-core pornography, but his attempts to build it into a profound exegesis of moral corruptibility is laughable. Nicholas Cage comports himself well enough as the protagonist, but his presence seems a waste, too. It’s difficult to say whether the faint aura of embarrassment around Cage’s performance is attributable to his own, ours, or both, but it is perfectly clear that someone much less capable might more seamlessly have been absorbed into the project’s mediocrity. (Without its vain tiltings at moral windmills and unsubstantiated sense of its own importance, 8mm might have been a good little noir exercise in the classic mode.) Cage’s characteristic subtlety and intelligence make the deficiencies of his role, and the speciousness of the movie around him, all the more glaring.

Tom Welles, a Pennsylvania private investigator who has earned a reputation for discretion among the state’s wealthier families, is offered a case by the elegant, gracious widow (played beautifully by the great stage actress Myra Carter, who many years ago worked for a time at Memphis’ Front Street Theatre) of a recently deceased steel baron. Among items in his private vault, she has discovered a 30-second snippet of a sado-masochistic “snuff” film. For a great deal of money and his absolute confidentiality, Welles is charged by the woman with finding out if the apparent victim in the film was, indeed, killed, and who she was. Welles’ investigation takes him into the underworld industry of extreme porno. In Schumacher’s pretensions to drama and moral outrage, Welles also descends into a sort of personal dark-night-of-the-soul, vaguely implying that if one lies down with degenerate dogs one is likely to get fleas of the conscience and that, as one character in the film sagely intones, “after you’re in it for awhile, you meet the devil in yourself.” Though hardly novel, this might have been an interesting enough premise if Welles’ character and the script in general were not so resoundingly shallow. As it is, 8mm is pure hokum. As Schumacher’s own leering voyeurism with the material becomes increasingly apparent, the film’s delusions of moral and dramatic grandeur ring even more hollow.

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