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Tucson Weekly The Smug War

'200 Cigarettes' is a tumor-causing, memory-staining, smelly, plotless movie.

By James DiGiovanna

MARCH 8, 1999:  WHEN I RETURNED from a vacation last week, I found that one of my cats had decided to use my down comforter as a urinal. Then, for good measure, he used my other down comforter in a similar manner, and topped off his artistic efforts by spraying some pillows and a dust ruffle. Discovering and removing the pee-stained articles was, on the whole, a much more entertaining and less humiliating experience than watching 200 Cigarettes.

The basic idea of this film is that there are a dozen or so people wandering around New York's lower east side on New Year's Eve 1981. They cross paths, switch partners, and all wind up at the same party.

Actually, the basic idea of this film was to round up as many hot young stars as possible in the hopes of duping the pseudo-hipster MTV audience into coming to the movie and pretending they liked it. To that end, Christina Ricci, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Dave Chappelle, Gaby Hoffman, Martha Plimpton, Courtney Love, Jay Mohr and Janeane Garofalo are tortured with dialogue that manages to be simultaneously boring and excruciatingly embarrassing. This is no doubt a difficult combination, and one for which screenwriter Shana Larsen (whose veteran scriptwriting credits include 200 Cigarettes and 200 Cigarettes) should be deeply mortified.

Although the blame doesn't lie exclusively with the tyro efforts of Larsen. Instead of hiring a director who had actually, I don't know, some experience or training in directing movies, production company MTV (you may remember them from such high-brow work as Road Rules and Real World) put this project under the control of casting director Risa Bramon Garcia. Garcia has never directed a film before in her life, and it shows. I guess a casting director just assumes that if you assemble a dozen young actors with buzz, then the job is done; just point the camera while they walk around and make poop jokes.

Yes, there's the obligatory poop joke in this film. Someone must stop this. I do not want to see any more feces clinging to a character's clothing. George of the Jungle, Dr. Dolittle, Nutty Professor, Flubber, My Favorite Martian and now 200 Cigarettes have all assaulted us with excrement. This is probably the worst trend in cinema since the demise of the ape movie.

After a while I was able to block out the feculence and focus on the other faults of this film. First off, while it was supposed to be set in 1981, most of the women in the cast were wearing the kind of vintage dresses that didn't become popular until the late '80s. The men all had long sideburns, which, while currently de rigueur for young Hollywood stud boys, were hardly universal at the time--the trendy look was to shave the sideburns embarrassingly high. Nobody in the cast had the kind of 1930s-style Kafka-do that was ubiquitous amongst the proto-club kids who hung around N.Y.'s alphabet city at the time. And while some of the characters were dressed in properly punk fashion, the original music played by the on-screen bands was decidedly grunge influenced, an unheard-of sound in those environs at that time.

This may seem picayune, but when a movie is set in a particular period, it's either for a historical reason or to recreate the ambiance of that time. Since there was no historical purpose for the temporal setting, one assumes it was supposed to be a nostalgia piece; if that's the case they could at least try to get the details straight.

Of course, when a viewer is able to focus on such trivialities, there's something wrong with the rest of the movie, which should have been busy distracting him with something that used to be called "plot." In fact, when some pony-tailed victim of consumer culture in the audience decided to use his cell phone during the movie, it provided a welcome distraction, and though his call consisted of little more than, "I can't really talk right now... yeah...yeah...," (which he felt obliged to shout into the receiver) it was considerably more entertaining than what was happening on screen.

What's so infuriating about a movie like this is the way it's designed to sucker viewers. Because they aimed so squarely at a crowd who currently think retro-'80s is hip, and who no doubt are big Affleck fans, the producers saw no reason to pay for a real script or director. The half-dozen stories that meandered through 200 Cigarettes all seemed to be gleaned from the scattered pieces found on the cutting room floors of other movies: a man and a woman who are best friends realize they are in love; two teenagers go to the big city and get lost on the way to a party, but manage to find romance; a woman gives a party and no one comes; two women who are best friends fall for the same guy. I kept imagining we were actually seeing these characters in-between scenes from a real movie, where they had something interesting to say and some purpose to their actions.

If that movie is ever found and released, then 200 Cigarettes could turn out to be the Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of the retro-hip world, but right now it looks more like the most forgettable film of the year--for those who didn't have to suffer through it.

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