The box office success of The Hangover puts into interesting context another movie about a bachelor party that goes wrong in Las Vegas. The other brutal bachelor blast is 1998's Very Bad Things.
The Hangover is an uneven romp that is intermittently funny, formulaically-written, and pretty forgettable. Therefore, I could recommend it to most viewers.
On the other hand, I might be able to recommend Very Bad Things to only 20% of viewers -- one in five -- but that minority will get a lasting kick out of it.
Very Bad Things is a horrible hoot. It is one of those movies that put you through the wringer. It doesn't tickle the funny bone -- it pulverizes it. You don't know whether to laugh, gasp, or walk out.
I blanch at many of the reviews. 60% were negative -- often hostile.
Very Bad Things is one of those movies that are instructive about reviewing. As a reviewer I ask a movie to be true to what it tries to be. And I judge it on that, and then on my own standards.
Most reviewers just say it's not what they want it to be and disdain it. They never get on its wave length -- and that's very true of the reactions to Very Bad Things. Most people -- and reviewers -- want laugh-out-loud comedy. Very Bad Things is a black comedy, guys and gals. You gag at the gags. It's manipulative, but very few go along with the manipulation.
The Grand Pooh-bah of reviewers Roger Ebert got the critical d.t.'s from Very Bad Things. He not only detested the movie, he detests people like me who liked it. But have no fear, Ebert gushed praise for The Hangover and gave it 3 1/2 stars.
Ebert sputtered over Very Bad Things, which he found, "mean-spirited and sour."
Of course Very Bad Things is mean-spirited. It's one of its charms.
It's also exhilarating and unpredictable. How far will it go? Did that just happen? Don't worry, it doesn't kill children. But everything else is fair -- and foul -- game.
Very Bad Things is the cringe-inducing story of five suburban pals who go to Las Vegas for a bache debauche. Where The Hangover has mayhem and multiple urinations, Very Bad Things has mayhem and multiple deaths.
It also has better acting and much better writing than The Hangover. And much more guts -- literally and figuratively.
A call girl is accidentally killed in the bathroom of the casino hotel, in which the guys are staying. The cover-up begins and spins bizarrely out of control.
The leader of the pack is real estate agent Boyd, played with wicked exuberance by a smirking Christian Slater. Boyd is an incipient sociopath. When circumstances allow psychopathic predilections to flourish, watch out. One can only hope one of his friends is not sociopathic.
Along with Slater's tours de force performance, the rest of the cast is aptly effective. Jon Favreau plays the malleable fiance Kyle, who is caught between a wedding and another hard place. Jeremy Piven, of tv's Entourage, plays Michael Berkow, who plunges into a funk of hysteria.
Michael's brother Adam (Daniel Stern) is the most guilt-ridden of the quintet. In a better written and executed scene than anything in The Hangover, Adam drives his family in their minivan to a gas station and convenience store, where he becomes paranoid and freaks out.
The fifth member of the tormented group is Charles Moore (Leland Orser), who has a quiet mouth while his eyes scream.
The women are equal to the men's intensity and dark sides. Cameron Diaz, with fury, plays the betrothed, and Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Adam's fierce wife.
Most such movies would end on an upbeat, perhaps ironic, note, but Very Bad Things just follows its bliss to an absurd conclusion.
Very Bad Things has a sly subtext of social criticism about the mores and manners of suburbanites, but it's beneath the garish goings-on. It's not announced, so many miss it.
Since writing and directing Very Bad Things, Peter Berg, who's also an actor, has directed The Rundown (2003), Friday Night Lights (2004), The Kingdom (2007), and Hancock (2008).
But none of them have the flair and audacity of Very Bad Things. Friday Night Lights was more conventional than the book.
Berg's vision is now middlebrow, which should please such as Ebert. Berg has gone on to make more successful movies that audiences and reviewers affirm.
But the vision of Very Bad Things was one of a kind. One can only surmise what might have been if Berg had remained on that twisted road listening to the dissonant drummer in his head.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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