Smack in the Face 

Junkie chic in Trainspotting

Junkie chic in Trainspotting

Thus far this summer, viewers have paid to experience, as realistically as possible, the feeling of being incinerated by death rays, smashed by farm machinery, and battered by battalions of brawny goons, from The Rock to Eraser to Fled. After three months of getting strung out on sensation, audiences are about to catch a whiff of something really dangerous: the sensation of getting strung out. Trainspotting, the massively hyped new drama from Scotland, is being marketed as the Twister of vicarious degradation, and indeed it plunges into the depths of squalor like a roller coaster taking a stomach-flipping mile-long dive. It’s the year’s most unlikely box of thrills—and a hard one to top, at that. Independence Day merely took us to the brink of Armageddon. Trainspotting takes us to hell.

Hell, in this case, is the junkie underworld of Edinburgh, seen through the spiraling-hypnotic-pinwheel eyes of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), a sardonic addict who finances his habit with shoplifting and government subsidies. For the movie’s first half—as in its source, a swaggeringly vibrant novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh—there’s little narrative but lots of incident. The camera simply hurtles pell-mell behind Renton and his mates—Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and the vicious hooligan Begbie (Robert Carlyle)—as they elude cops, avoid work, start brawls, and get high. The structure, which dissolves time and location, evokes a junkie’s scrambled consciousness; the cool music, hot lighting, and heart-murmur editing supply the high. Only after Renton goes cold turkey does a central plot line cohere—when he finds a life of junk is hard to escape.

Since its publication in 1993, Welsh’s novel has triggered the kind of excitement in Britain that the early works of John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe provoked nearly two generations ago. The book is utterly engrossing, a synthesis of kitchen-sink realism and the ferocious, gob-in-your-face nihilism of the Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle. It has drawn repeated comparisons to A Clockwork Orange—largely, I suspect, because it features unlikable people saying unpleasant things in unintelligible dialect. (Perhaps as acknowledgment, the art direction in a club scene pays homage to the Stanley Kubrick movie.) But the slang created by Anthony Burgess, a sort of pidgin Russian distorted phonetically into English, was intended to show how the corruption of language mirrors the decline of a society’s ideals. The patois of Welsh’s novel, a dense Scottish dialect in which “out” becomes “oot” and “fight” becomes the luscious “swedge,” does exactly the opposite. It’s a flicker of vitality and spirit, a rough music, amidst days of drudging despair.

It’s that flash of spirit, combined with a riotous streak of gallows humor, that separates Welsh’s book from a pretentious wallow like Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Writing about addicts, queens, and whores, Selby piled on so many grisly details that his desperation to appall the reader became unintentionally funny. The result was something like the lecture a busted vice cop might give to a wayward 4-H Club. Welsh is smart enough to realize that people don’t take drugs and have careless sex because they want to feel miserable; if that were the case, the wars against drugs and AIDS would’ve been easier to win than a campaign against brussels sprouts. “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death,” snarls Renton in the film, “but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.” The novel Trainspotting is leavened with the scabrous, scatological humor of people who can fall no further.

So, thankfully, is the movie—though the humor will no doubt offend some viewers much more than the grim scenes of overdosage and withdrawal. (One gut-wrenchingly funny scene—of Renton fishing through a reservoir of diarrhea for some opium suppositories—is more effective than every stern anti-drug warning combined.) As might be expected, the director, Danny Boyle, has a canny sense of shock value: The movie opens with Renton busting ass away from the cops as Iggy Pop slams out “Lust for Life.” (The soundtrack, which ranges from Lou Reed to rave, is consistently astute.) But the movie’s flashy style, which borrows from Richard Lester, the Nouvelle Vogue, MTV, and especially early Scorsese—Mean Streets is quoted liberally, even before the credits—lends a weird buoyancy to the horrors of junkie life. The collision of hyperbolic technique and drugged-out lethargy is entrancing.

Less interesting is the movie’s second half, in which the newly clean Renton finds that his buddies refuse to let him go. Like Mean Streets and GoodFellas, Trainspotting gets across how hard it is to break the bonds of friendship in a close community, no matter how poisonous those bonds, those friends, or that community may be. But Boyle, who directed the showy, hollow thriller Shallow Grave, is all too eager to flex his stylistic muscles. Sometimes it works, as in an overdose scene filmed from the floating vantage point of a grave; sometimes it doesn’t, as in the long, hallucinatory scene of Renton’s withdrawal, which is as show-offy and self-conscious as a special-effects reel. Boyle, like so many other contemporary directors, tries to replicate Scorsese’s effects, but without Scorsese’s vision or sense of place the style seems a little generic, as if the director thought Edinburgh were merely Little Italy with brogues.

Why does a grimy, harrowing, militantly profane film about Scottish drug addicts stand a chance of becoming a huge stateside success in a summer dominated by mega-budget special-effects extravaganzas? Trainspotting may tap into an entirely different audience than Twister or Independence Day—just ask the traumatized family that fled the Trainspotting press screening when they realized they weren’t watching ID4—but the underlying appeal of either film is strangely similar. In both cases, viewers want to get as close as possible to life-threatening destruction without breaking a sweat; whether your threat of choice is a cyclone, a spaceship, or smack, the allure of the (pen)ultimate sensation remains the same. (So does the hype.) All that matters is the quality of the product and the amount of pleasure derived. On those terms, Trainspotting is one of the cheapest legal highs around.—Jim Ridley

Pinheads

Kingpin, the new comedy codirected by the Farrelly Brothers (of Dumb and Dumber infamy), is very much of the appalling, gross-out, shocked-laughter genre of humor. The film follows the exploits of a drunken, maimed bowler named Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) as he trains a goodhearted Amish boy (Randy Quaid) to compete in a million-dollar bowl-off in Reno against Munson’s old nemesis, Big Ern (Bill Murray). Along the way, Munson vomits and drinks bull semen (in that order), the Amish kid defecates in a urinal, and the Farrelly Brothers make fun of stutterers, farmers, the Amish, people with prosthetics, and just about anybody who isn’t a white filmmaker of limited talent.

Let’s make this clear: Kingpin is not a particularly well-made movie. Like Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin is flatly paced, and the most disgusting jokes hang lifelessly in the air like flatulence. Like Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin is grubby-looking, poorly lit, and unimaginatively shot. The style of the film is all over the map—simple slapstick one minute, playful farce the next, and even wild, Airplane-style parody at odd moments.

Not that any of the above matters. The real question is, are there laughs in the movie? Yes, quite a few, actually, although many are from disbelief at how low a movie will sink to entertain—not just in its toilet humor, but in the relentless ugliness of every character and every room. The Farrelly Brothers’ vision? A funny line is always funnier when spoken by a man with greasy hair and an obvious physical defect. Why walk when you can limp?

Kingpin only really hits its stride in the last 20 minutes, in Reno, as Munson and Big Ern square off mano-a-mano at the lanes. Suddenly, the overwhelming cruddiness of the decor, the garishly outdated costumes, and even the stringy comb-over hairstyles of Munson and Ern become more than just something odd to gawk at. With Murray strutting around like Demi Moore in Striptease and Harrelson smiling desperately through each indignity that befalls him—neither of them apparently aware of how unattractive they look—Kingpin suddenly acquires a zany energy reminiscent of Donald O’Connor singing “Make ’Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain. The rhythm is fast, the gags are manic, and there’s not a bodily-function joke in the mix.

There are at least two kinds of laughter in this world—the cleansing kind and the soiling kind. Both are born of surprise, but only the former brings anything like delight to the table. Dirty jokes tend to be surprising in roughly the way a sharp stick in the eye is surprising—it’s funny as long as it’s not your eye being gouged. When Kingpin works, we laugh at something at once unexpected, absurd, and clever. When it slumps—when the film takes two minutes to set up a dumb gag about sawing off a cow’s feet—we feel dumb for wasting our time...and if we laugh, we feel even dumber.—Noel Murray

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