Photo by Robert ZuckermanMore and more, American cinema seems populated with either saints or sinners; what’s missing is any sense that movie characters have a relationship to real people living real lives. The latest exercise in cinematic bad behavior is the execrable directorial debut of TV actor Peter Berg, Very Bad Things. It’s about five white guys who land in Las Vegas in a minivan, accidentally kill a prostitute, and embark on one of those sham philosophical adventures in which loyalty, ethics, conscience and patience — primarily that of the audience — are all put to the test. Pitched as a black comedy, the film thus far seems to have divided audiences, including critics, between those who think it unaccountably hilarious and those who see it as the latest manifestation of what might be called the new nihilism.

The most recent illustrations of this new nihilism — arguably Your Friends & Neighbors, certainly Happiness and now Very Bad Things — center on ensembles of putatively normal characters who abruptly find themselves in abnormal circumstances. In Your Friends & Neighbors, a group of friends is undone by the ripple effect of adultery; in Happiness, an extended family is subject to a host of torments, from divorce to pedophilia and even, peripherally, murder. Very Bad Things ups the body count and adds a laugh track: During a bachelor party lit up by cocaine and alcohol, a reveler accidentally impales an Asian prostitute on a bathroom towel hook midhump. The woman evinces no more personality alive than dead, which is also true of a black security guard murdered by the panicked men. Over time, the friends — a mechanic and four professionals, including the groom-to-be, and a family man — turn on one another like the lab rats they’re meant to be.

It’s risky to sweep dissimilar films into a single thesis: Your Friends & Neighbors looks wildly, improbably compassionate next to Happiness, while Happiness seems milky with human kindness alongside Very Bad Things. Happiness’ writer-director, Todd Solondz, has a bolder, more developed visual style than Your Friends & Neighbors’ writer-director, Neil LaBute; both do some fine work with actors. Both also write painful, at times exceptionally funny, dialogue that is consistently more complex than their sense of what makes a human being interesting, though LaBute seems shrewder, especially in regard to just how deeply unsympathetic his women and men actually play to audiences.

Although much has been made of the fact that Your Friends & Neighbors and Happiness use humor to poke at subjects that are often the preserve of tragedy, it’s not the comedy that seems so strikingly different or new. (Very Bad Things is meant to be a comedy, but its jokes are as insipid as its compositions and performances.) It’s the pervading sense that moral choice is not just difficult but impossible, perhaps irrelevant. In all three of these movies, people do bad, even venal things to one another — but so what? In Your Friends & Neighbors, a man sleeps with his best friend’s wife and destroys two couples. A man rapes his son’s friends in Happiness, but since his family — like LaBute’s couples — is predicated on ugly untruth, there’s no real sense of loss when everything finally implodes.

It’s not always clear what LaBute and Solondz hope to tell us about the world or their much-aggrieved characters. Both indulge in a sort of reductive "cinema of cruelty," to borrow a term coined by the French critic Andre Bazin. But unlike, say, Luis Buñuel, whose cinema of cruelty ultimately affirms rather than denies his characters’ human fallibility, and with it the filmmakers’ own morality, neither LaBute nor Solondz — much less Berg — seem interested in creating characters who are recognizably human, in any sense of that word. LaBute’s film is the most successful of the three, and certainly it’s the least noxious, because his characters are the most complex. They may not be redeemed (or redeemable) by the film’s end, but beneath their malaise, disaffection and petty cruelties exist glimmers of self-awareness, something wholly absent from Solondz’s carnival of sociopaths and misfits.

Berg’s characters are self-aware, but that’s all they are — blindly, murderously self-aware. Kyle (Jon Favreau), the intended groom, covers up two deaths es sentially because he’s set to marry Laura (Cameron Diaz), a harridan whose fanatical attention to her nuptials says everything you need to know about the director’s attitude toward the opposite sex. Kyle’s friends cover up the deaths ostensibly to protect their own lives, because, well, why not? For one man, a real estate agent played by Christian Slater, disposing of the bodies serves as a test of character, a masculine rite of passage. If only the film were that exciting, entertaining or engaging. But there’s nothing here beyond the empty ritual of second- and third-rate actors earning paychecks through the graces of one of their own; as to Berg, it’s a sure bet that if he weren’t already a name, we would have been spared his spasmodic attempt to construct what only charitably can be called a black comedy.

Nihilism is nothing new, but it’s hard to recall another moment in movie history — outside, maybe, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia — in which we’ve been subjected to so many films stripped bare of rational moral judgment and politics both. How did we get here is the question, not just because they tell us about how we live now, but because Very Bad Things is not the last of these very bad movies. You could blame other filmmakers. But Scorsese’s virtuosic sadism, no matter how sporadically abhorrent (as with Casino), remains inseparable from his deep sense of good and evil, while Tarantino, for all his giggly sadism, did structure Reservoir Dogs around how long it takes for a sympathetic cop to bleed to death. And, anyway, is Michael Madson slicing off a guy’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, and jolting us into a state of shock, honestly more offensive, more immoral than, say, Bruce Willis chipping golf balls at a Greenpeace boat in Armageddon, a scene played for laughs?

Not to let Armageddon’s creators off the hook, but trying to place original blame for the moral and political vacuum at the core of so many of our movies seems, finally, a zero-sum game. If nothing else, it’s terrifying to imagine this vacuum being filled with still more of the pseudo-spiritual pap of which Hollywood has recently become so fond. Writing about Buñuel, Bazin argued that the cruelty of the director’s films was not his own, that "he restricts himself to revealing it in the world." This was not a cinema of pessimism but, rather, a cinema of love: "Because it evades nothing, concedes nothing, and dares to dissect reality with surgical obscenity, it can rediscover man in all his greatness and force us, by a sort of Pascalian dialectic, into love and admiration." It doesn’t seem too sensational to suggest that right now in this country we are being inundated with a cinema of hate, a cinema that encourages our sadism, our scorn and, worst of all, our total disinterest — toward the world, other human beings, and just maybe ourselves.

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