Shana Larsen's story is a roundelay of scenes involving various young couples and individuals connected by their eventual appearances at the same Lower East Side loft party. The scenemakers range from Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman as two Longuyland high schoolers adrift in Alphabet City, to Jay Mohr as a noncommittal stud out on the town with klutzy Kate Hudson, whose cherry he popped the night before. This midwinter's night dream plays out in bars, taxis and diners, creating a swirling momentum that never allows us to pause too long at any one spot or thought.
Its focus on the women characters marks 200 Cigarettes as a feminized entertainment and so, not surprisingly, whenever we find men who are unattached, we're led to believe there is a cosmic justice behind their unhappy status. Ben Affleck's swingin' bartender and Brian McCardie's boorish painter appear more as caution signs than comic archetypes, and even Mohr's self-centered actor is the kind of man who can only make a girl's life miserable; in a touch calculated to up the ante from Cameron Diaz's cum-hither look in There's Something About Mary, Hudson sports a dog-shit smear on the back of her coat for much of the film. (One can only wonder, uneasily, what this kind of escalation will produce next.)
This film may never attain a critical mass of satiric understanding about its milieu or time, but at least its individual moments provide plenty of harmless laughter, accented by the kind of K-Tel-hits soundtrack we've grown accustomed to ever since American Graffiti established instant nostalgia as a movie genre. (The Cars, the Go-Go's and Nick Lowe are some of the softcore talent featured -- devotees of Richard Hell or the Contortions need not line up for the CD.) When a country loses what little appreciation it has of its own history, the continual idealization and cannibalization of the recent past by the entertainment industry is the result.
And while we may quibble with period glitches or the movie's monolithic heterosexuality and whiteness -- snow goggles are strongly advised when viewing this film -- first-time director Garcia does exercise enough restraint to prevent her project from becoming all about hair and costume, letting her ensemble's humanity peak through the studied cynicism that was so much a part of the era in question.
If there is a star among equals here, it is Love in the role of Kevin's pal Lucy. Her scratchy-voice enthusiasm and shifting facial topography reveal an actor with formidable intuition and reflexes, allowing her character to move from vamp to waif with blurry velocity. Like many Love watchers, the camera in this film maintains an ambivalent attitude toward her, unsure whether it is capturing a resurrected Edie Sedgwick or a young Bette Midler. If The People vs. Larry Flynt showed that Love could act, then 200 Cigarettes proves she is a natural for romantic comedy, an ironic evolution for this volatile figure whose persona was forged in the crucible -- or rather, ashtray -- of the 1980s.
THE COUPLINGS IN 200 CIGARETTES ARE UNDERtaken with relatively open eyes, but the dates in Myles Berkowitz's film are of the blind variety. 20 Dates is a cleverly edited quasi-mockumentary about Berkowitz's attempt to remedy both his lack of female companionship and his failure to become a filmmaker. Like many people with Hollywood ambitions, Berkowitz's long-held dreams saw little payoff. (Most of this 30-something's industry credits are for cable-channel TV scripts.) Why he's womanless, though, is not readily apparent, as his actorly good looks and sense of humor make him seem prime boyfriend material.
Before long, however, we find out why, as he surreptitiously films 20 blind dates in the hope of finding romance and, in the process, parlaying this chronicle into a picture contract. For if Berkowitz opens his narrative a little on the plaintive side, he soon becomes a full-bore whiner. And not just to us, as he also presents himself as an obnoxious little pasha to his dates -- women who, for the most part, have been set up with him by Berkowitz's friends. (How long they remained on good terms with these friends after their experiences is never mentioned.)
Berkowitz's M.O. is simple: He picks up a date and proceeds with her to some Westside grazing spot, with a cameraman and sound operator secreted behind a presumed wall of palmettos. Sometimes the women have been vaguely informed by Berkowitz that some unspecified moments of their relationship will be filmed (actually, taped on Beta SP, which was later transferred to film); others are completely unaware of what is happening. Punctuating this footage are meetings with Berkowitz's agent, Richard Arlook, and secretly audiotaped off-camera encounters with Elie Samaha, Berkowitz's gutter-mouthed, short-tempered producer, who relentlessly demands a film packed with "tits and ass" and not the concept package that is actually being shot.
These scenes with Samaha are among the funniest, along with Berkowitz's interview with screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who, in an empty Royal Theater, offers Berkowitz some curt assessments of his character and chances for success. The moments with the women yield mixed results. There is a hilarious sequence of Berkowitz trying to impress a thrill-seeking date by bungee jumping with her, and some apparently genuine courting with a woman to whom he eventually becomes engaged, but we never quite shake the feeling that this film is not on the level.
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For one thing, all the women look like models and are suspiciously tolerant of Berkowitz's behavior. Some are amazingly good-natured when he springs the truth about the film crew lurking in the background, although there is one early scene in which Berkowitz's date sits crestfallen upon hearing the news about their dinner. A sickening feeling of having participated in someone's humiliation creeps over us during this awful moment, forcing our conflicting attitudes toward candid-camera culture to the surface. We may all be voyeurs in some sense, but watching this woman's wounded reaction reminds us of our own complicity in the erosion of privacy. (In a later scene, one of Berkowitz's dates becomes outraged, leading, he implies, to a physical altercation, although we never witness it; Berkowitz claims, in his film, that his experiment earned him two lawsuits.)
There is much about 20 Dates that recalls Albert Brooks' old Saturday Night Live films -- sardonic meditations and sendups that displayed a citric, self-deflating personality. But this film also reveals Berkowitz as a defrauder of trusting, vulnerable strangers, which, in the process, leaves us feeling a little exhilarated, but also a little dirty. You feel that Berkowitz will probably end up with that film contract but, like February 30, intimacy will never arrive for him.
200 CIGARETTES | Directed by RISA BRAMON
GARCIA | Written by SHANA LARSEN | Starring BEN AFFLECK, CHRISTINA RICCI, COURTNEY LOVE and
PAUL RUDD | Produced by BETSY BEERS, DAVID GALE and VAN TOFFLER | Released by Paramount | Citywide
20 DATES | Written and directed by MYLES BERKOWITZ | Produced by ELIE SAMAHA, MARK McGARRY and JASON VILLARD | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | Sunset 5 and Mann Criterion