Disco Sucks 

"54" parks on the dance floor

"54" parks on the dance floor

The new film 54 is not what it was meant to be. First-time writer-director Mark Christopher battled the moneymen at Miramax, and Miramax won, forcing out a short, breezy film about the legendary disco and its late-’70s/early-’80s milieu. Christopher, meanwhile, had a grander vision—to tell a tale about the lust for power and fame, and to tell it through the twists and turns of a bisexual love triangle among 54’s wait staff.

Miramax’s 54 is a colossal bad movie—kitschy, cornball, and fatally goofy—but Christopher’s version probably would have been even worse. At least the final cut of 54 is watchably bad. From everything I’ve read about what Christopher wanted, his 54 would’ve been joyless and stern—a Boogie Nights stripped of its gleeful irony and its heady mix of original, lovable characters.

54 stars Ryan Phillippe as Shane, a Jersey greaser who dreams of the highly publicized Manhattan nightlife. Because he’s blond and buff, he catches the eye of Studio 54 proprietor Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), who employs Shane as one of 54’s infamous shirtless busboys. Shane quickly makes friends with his coworkers, especially coat-check-girl-cum-disco-queen Anita (Salma Hayek) and her drug-pusher husband Greg (Breckin Meyer). Despite the familial closeness, though, the staffers of 54 are not above stabbing each other in the back if it gives them a chance to get closer to the club’s jet-set clientele.

The most interesting part of the Studio 54 story is Steve Rubell, a Brooklyn mug who relishes the power he wields over the glamorous and the wannabes. Mike Myers’ performance as Rubell is the only real reason to see 54—he’s stuporously sincere, and fully in charge of business even when he seems to be completely out of it. Myers is doing a slightly comic shtick here, but he’s entertaining where the rest of the film is too restrained, and he’s even dramatic when necessary.

Unfortunately, Rubell is only a minor character in this story. Christopher is more interested in the other half of the Studio 54 experience—the relationship of the working class and the snooty patrons as mutual voyeurs. The film doesn’t explicate this theme through refined characterization, but rather through sweeping voice-over narration. What Christopher (or maybe Miramax) misunderstands is that having a character talk about how the ’70s were a time when anybody could be a celebrity doesn’t mean that your movie is about that idea. It takes more than blatantly stating the point of a movie to develop said point.

Without a coherent historical perspective, or a “shocking” bisexual love story, what’s left in 54 is high camp. Phillippe is an attractive young actor, but he has zero charisma, and his bickering with Meyer over who gets to be head bartender could be two varsity quarterbacks fighting over who gets to escort the prom queen. And the longer 54 goes on, the more ridiculous it becomes; I won’t even discuss Disco Dottie, the always good-for-a-laugh octogenarian party animal whose tragic overdose leads to the film’s hilariously awful climax.

As previously stated, this is not the movie Christopher intended to make, but even his designs were too small. Here we have a nightclub where Mick Jagger danced with Truman Capote, and the drama of the film is two bare-chested hunks shouting “You’ve changed, man!” while carrying tubs of dirty glasses. Before filming even started, somebody should’ve turned that beat around.

—Noel Murray

Full court

Frankie Lymon’s story was among the most mystifying and tragic in rock history. Possessed of a magical voice and amazing athletic ability, this singer parlayed his talents into superstardom at an early age. His group, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, are best remembered for their biggest hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” a crossover smash in 1956. The song went on to influence numerous other artists, songwriters, and producers, including Little Anthony, Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and Michael Jackson.

At 13, Lymon was on top; he was essentially finished at 17, due in large part to an ill-fated decision to break from the group. The rest of his life was desultory, marked by failed comebacks and multiple marriages, from which he never obtained legal divorces. In 1968, Lymon died at the age of 25, and his estate became the source of court fights that continued for the next 20 years among the surviving band members and the three women who claimed to be his wife.

The court battle between the three women forms the basis of Gregory Nava’s film Why Do Fools Fall in Love, which tells Lymon’s story through three often compelling flashbacks, each from a different widow’s viewpoint. First wife Vivica A. Fox spins a yarn about a charming soul undone by drug addiction. Wife number two, Halle Berry, profiles a gifted vocalist unable to face musical and lifestyle changes. The third, Lela Rochon, unveils an over-the-hill performer, fresh out of the Army, who wants to settle down and be a faithful husband but can’t overcome the urge to return to the stage.

Each portrait serves as a showcase for Larenz Tate, who’s visually compelling and often magnificent as Lymon. Tate smoothly and effectively keeps the dramatic focus shifting as he moves from hero to villain, from comedy to tragedy, unable to overcome the twin demons of weakness and ego.

Those unfamiliar with Lymon’s story will probably find Why Do Fools Fall in Love most satisfying; the courtroom scenes featuring the wives’ testimonies are hilarious, and Little Richard’s cameos are outrageous. The interaction between Fox, Berry, Rochon, and Tate is wonderful, running the gamut from slapstick to riveting emotion. We come away understanding both Lymon’s charm and the degree to which his ultimately fatal flaws hurt those who loved him.

Since this film is billed as a dramatization, some historical license was inevitable; still, some errors are too big to overlook. For instance, it wasn’t the group’s manager, Morris Levy (superbly played by Paul Mazursky), who convinced Lymon to leave the Teenagers; it was label owner George Goldner. Nor were the wives the only people trying to get a piece of Lymon’s estate: Surviving members of the Teenagers also went to court. And not only did Levy put his name on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” at least six others have claimed authorship of the song since Lymon’s death.

The audience gets graphic evidence of the film’s greatest discrepancy at the end, when footage of the real Lymon starts rolling before the credits. Larenz Tate is a wonderful actor, but no amount of makeup can make a 30-year-old man look 13, and in the early scenes involving the Teenagers, he looks about as much like Frankie Lymon as Bill Cosby does. Still, since Hollywood has never cared about accuracy in its biographic portrayals, Tate and his gifted trio of actresses acquit themselves well in this entertaining, if often fantasized, look at a tragic icon of early rock and R&B.

—Ron Wynn

News of the Weir

Peter Weir scored the first of the year’s hype-machine overkills this summer with The Truman Show, the story of an awakening individual who yearns to escape a repressed, rigidly controlled artificial environment. It’s not the masterpiece its studio unwisely promoted it to be, but it is a clever and ingeniously directed film. And it ought to be: The Australian director had made a dry run for it 23 years before. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir’s deeply unsettling 1975 film about a disappearance at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for girls, has just been given a new reissue; seen in Truman’s cathode-ray glow, it’s remarkably similar in both theme and style.

Picnic at Hanging Rock opens on Valentine’s Day 1900 at stern Mrs. Appleyard’s school, where the girls giggle in their rooms and read love poems until they’re called downstairs—for which they must lace each other into straitjacket-like corsets and assume identical outfits. On a morning expedition to nearby Hanging Rock, an uncharted formation of volcanic rock, four of the girls wander off to explore the summit. As if in a trance, they slip off their stockings and disappear into the rock’s womb-like crevices. A few hours later, only one of the girls returns, and she’s in a state of hysteria.

So what happened? The lack of a definite answer only contributes to the movie’s somnambulant, feverish mood (as well as its fervent cult following). The key seems to be Miranda (Anne Lambert), a blossoming, vibrant girl who’s repeatedly compared to “a Botticelli angel.” Before she vanished, Miranda confided to a schoolmate that she wouldn’t be around much longer; did she have a vision of a sinister fate? Or had she already planned her escape, Truman-style, from the school’s repressive confines? The drab Appleyard school has none of the cheery pastels of Truman’s Nick-at-Nite hometown, but it’s just as stifling to the spirit, the libido, and the imagination—it’s just as unnatural.

In Weir’s movies, from The Last Wave through Fearless, nature—weather, geography, fate—is beyond the control of man: Even the director’s stand-in, Truman’s creator Christof, gets a rude awakening when he thinks he’s rigged the universe. At best, we’re spectators; at worst, intruders. Just as Truman’s every move is recorded by hundreds of hidden cameras, the girls in the woods are being watched by unseen eyes: There are several startling shots in Picnic that force us to consider what point of view we’re taking. But in both films, the answer comes back: the voyeur’s, the director’s—but never the creator’s.

Fittingly, both Truman and Miranda escape to someplace neither the viewer nor the director is allowed to see. Weir holds out the hope—or the threat—that there’s a realm of existence we can’t just invade; that tantalizing possibility gives Picnic at Hanging Rock its mystical, hypnotic otherworldliness. Does Miranda vanish into thin air, or into cold, cold ground? Either way, you may keep returning to the haunting final shot for days. Judging from Peter Weir’s subsequent work, he never fully left Hanging Rock either.

—Jim Ridley

Hashing it out

For a movie whose premise is an Ethics 101 essay question—“Would you give up six years of your life to save a friend from death?”—Return to Paradise is surprisingly watchable and even moving. Most of the credit for the film’s impact is due to Joaquin Phoenix, who plays an American imprisoned in Malaysia for possession of a brick of hash that his traveling companions (Vince Vaughn and David Conrad) left behind. He’s been sentenced to die unless his friends agree to return to the country to serve time.

Phoenix’s role might easily have been a cliché: the gentle environmentalist facing violent justice. But his courageous portrayal of incipient madness and desperation gives weight to the choice his friends have to make. Anne Heche brings her convincing intensity to the part of the lawyer begging Vaughn and Conrad for help, while Vaughn lends some welcome specificity to his leading role by playing up his less heroic impulses.

Maybe too melodramatic at times, and saddled with an unnecessary media subplot, Return to Paradise nevertheless conjures up the punch of yesterday’s “issue” films. (It’s a remake of the French film Force Majeure.) It’s not on the large, flashy scale of the Oscar hopefuls about to hit fall screens, but some terrific acting from Heche, Vaughn, and especially Phoenix places it among the more satisfying serious films of the summer.

—Donna Bowman

Gag reflex

Do you know why I enjoyed Wrongfully Accused? Because nobody vomited. This has been the throwing-uppest summer on record, what with Saving Private Ryan, Henry Fool, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the upcoming Simon Birch, and the two “comedies” that Wrongfully Accused most resembles—Mafia! and BASEketball. These last two were especially putrid, because when people weren’t regurgitating, they were crawling up goat rectums or slurping liposuction.

Much has been made of the gross-out humor in There’s Something About Mary, but that movie’s obsession with fluids and physical defects was tempered by some good gags and a fundamental sweetness. Mafia! and BASEketball brought out the toilet humor to cover creative bankruptcy, which is especially shocking when you consider their respective creators, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, were part of the team responsible for the funny and inventive Airplane!, Naked Gun, and Hot Shots! series.

Wrongfully Accused was put together by another member of that team, Pat Proft, who clearly understands the appeal of his oeuvre better than his colleagues. Leslie Nielsen stars as a concert violinist who’s accused of murdering his patron (Michael York), all of which is a setup for a parody of The Fugitive, which veers into a parody of Lord of the Dance, Titanic, Anaconda, and, most memorably, The Usual Suspects. These parody movies have been pretty well played out in recent years, but Proft has a gift for Mad-magazine-style visual jokes, and he maintains a lightness and zippiness that makes the film pass pleasantly.

No, Wrongfully Accused is not fall-down funny, but it offers some riotous moments—my favorite has the runaway train from The Fugitive stalking Nielsen like a hungry lion. Most importantly, even at its worst, it only induces groans and rolled eyes from the audience...not turned stomachs.

—Noel Murray

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