Tick, Tick . . . Kablooey!

The young actress Noelle Evans needs a new agent, fast, and not just because you’ve never heard of her. Blond, stacked, good-looking in an ’80s, David Lee Roth music video sort of way and capable of line-reading clichés without a speck of self-consciousness, the actress has appeared in Hellraiser: Inferno and the straight-to-video Dangerous Proposition. In her latest, 15 Minutes, Evans plays a prostitute named Honey, whose entire reason for being is to show us her big tits before she’s stabbed to death and, in a morbid echo of Marilyn Monroe’s red-velvet calendar shots, artfully arranged in a puddle of blood. Evans looks as delectable playing dead as she does playing living, which gets at just how repulsive a movie this is. The filmmakers don’t see that there’s any difference, because for them the character is meat — prime-cut pinup.

“America likes to watch” is the advertising teaser for 15 Minutes, but it’s a good bet America won’t like to watch these two hours of carnage and cynicism, at least beyond the opening weekend. Robert De Niro, the main attraction as well as one of the executive producers, plays New York City detective Eddie Flemming, whose fame is enough to rate the cover of People magazine. The title of the film and the People cover spill the conceptual beans as freely as the trailer, but in case you weren’t watching, in the first minutes there’s also a tabloid-TV anchor looking to bump up his ratings and a pair of unshaven Eastern Europeans looking for trouble. Soon after landing in Times Square, one of the tourists rips off a video camera, though not before he reads aloud a sign in the display case: “Make your own movies.”

Dubbing himself Frank Capra, the video thief, a Russian named Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), proceeds to realize his American dream of celebrity by taping the violent exploits of his companion, a crazy Czech named Emil (Karel Roden). They kill and kill again, with Emil playing butcher and Oleg playing auteur. Meanwhile, when Emil is not thrusting knives into warm bodies in front of Oleg’s lens, the pair watch television, soaking in the ritual of confession and forgiveness that constitutes daytime programming. “I love America,” says Emil as he lounges in a fleabag hotel room and plots his ascendancy as America’s favorite reality-television personality. “No one is responsible for what they do.” Yup, and no one is less responsible here than writer and director John Herzfeld, who apparently read the same display-case sign that Oleg did, and with nearly as unwatchable results.

As 15 Minutes goes from bad to worse and then briefly teeters at the edge of full-blown self-parody, much as the similarly apocalyptic 8MM did, Herzfeld proves himself an equal-opportunity hater, or maybe just a hateful opportunist. Everything’s grist for his cynicism: immigrants (“You think I came to America to work?” Emil asks with a sneer), women (tarts, helpless or dead), lawyers (Bruce Cutler — as himself!), the law and, perhaps most revealing, anyone with a video camera, professionals and amateurs alike. Ours is a world of too many civil liberties and video cameras, Herzfeld insists, a violent, celebrity-obsessed culture that, in classic dumb Hollywood tradition, he’s opted to take on by making a movie in which every death is as choreographed and art-directed as a fashion shoot.

15 Minutes isn’t just rotten — badly acted, badly written, badly conceived — it’s dead inside. The best films, as well as some of the more purely mediocre ones, come alive through the force of the personalities behind the camera or of those in front. It’s why some two-dimensional images seem like three: not because of any technical wizardry, but because in these films there are traces of life in gestures, bits of dialogue, even the animated curve of a teapot. 15 Minutes is a charnel house of filmmaking. Herzfeld steals a little from Seven and Taxi Driver, but leaves out the vestigial human qualities from both, as well as, more obviously, the genius. It’s depressing that De Niro, who delivers a monologue in front of a mirror, is so willing to parody himself for trash like this; it’s more depressing still to see him take credit for it not once but twice.

The question to ask about the relatively new, unfunny comedy Company Man isn’t “Why did it take two years to release?” It’s “Which industry genius thought the time was ripe to unload this dud?” The film was reportedly shot in early 1999, snapped up by Paramount Classics and taken to court shortly thereafter, with co-directors and co-writers Doug McGrath and Peter Askin filing a lawsuit against the production’s two finance companies for breach of contract. Daily Variety reported that “According to the complaint the two directors agreed on June 8 to show a rough cut to Intermedia in order to get feedback. Intermedia execs made no comments to the directors after seeing the film, the complaint asserts, adding that two days later, Intermedia demanded that McGrath and Askin ship all the film materials to Los Angeles, where Intermedia began to re-edit the pic.”

The dispute was settled in August of that year, but no details were announced, so it’s impossible to know who to blame for this botch. Set in 1962, the film stars McGrath as a schoolteacher named Allen Quimp, who, rather like Graham Greene’s man in Havana (though with neither wit nor good writing), becomes an accidental operative. Quimp testifies before a pair of senators trying to get at the truth behind the Bay of Pigs invasion, and it turns out that Cuba was lost for a wife’s want of a fur stole. It sounds like a Henny Youngman joke and plays like one, too — on and on, a swamp of silliness and subpar shtick through which wade and wallow a Soviet defector (Ryan Phillippe), a lunatic agent (John Turturro), a CIA chief (Woody Allen, uncredited — and who can blame him?), Batista (Alan Cumming), Castro (Anthony LaPaglia) and the Quimps (as the wife, Sigourney Weaver doesn’t just wallow; she sinks).

Nearly everyone is terrible except for Cumming, who just does what comes naturally and steals his every scene. In the film’s best moment, Batista turns lounge lizard and sings a woozy “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” a glimpse of satiric madness and good timing that, unlike the rest of the film, is over too soon. Could there be a better movie in here somewhere? In the age of the director as auteur, that’s not something you’re meant to ask. “Forget their legal rights for a moment,” Nora Ephron was quoted as saying around the time of McGrath and Askin’s suit. “Let’s just ask the question, ‘Will they get a better movie by removing the people who created it and whose vision inspired everyone to come aboard, and replac[ing] them with people who are not writers or directors?’ That’s like replacing a pilot with a passenger.” The thing is, for everyone who knows the Zucker brothers, losing the pilot isn’t always a bad idea — especially when you’re looking for laughs.

15 MINUTES | Written and directed by JOHN HERZFELD | Produced by DAVID BLOCKER and HERZFELD | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide

COMPANY MAN | Written and directed by DOUG McGRATH and PETER ASKIN | Produced by JOHN PENOTTI, RICK LEED and JAMES SCOTCHDOPOLE Released by Paramount Classics | At selected theaters


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