Coming Soon Directed by Colette Burson
Human Traffic Directed by Justin Kerrigan
Coming Soon is the worse of the two, and considering how shallow Human Traffic is, that's a slam that shouldn't be taken lightly. Written and directed by 31-year-old Colette Burson, it's an ensemble comedy about sexually questing rich girls. It desperately wants to be an East Coast Clueless; to conjure up that neurotic New York vibe, it stirs in Woody Allen-style references to Freud and sedatives plus the sexual and chemical frankness of Larry Clark's Kids (which played like an outcast junior high geek's fantasy of what the cool kids were doing).
The heroine is Stream Hodsell (Bonnie Root), a smart, beautiful, freckle-faced high school kid who's obsessed with getting into a good college but even more obsessed with having an orgasm. She hooks up with Chad (James Roday), a handsome rich brat who doesn't care about anything but his own pleasure, and is simultaneously courted by a sensitive, hunky, baby-faced musician-loner named Henry Lipschitz (Ryan Reynolds), who's related to the Rockefeller family but changed his last name because he didn't want to coast on lineage. As Stream stumbles toward self-knowledge and maturity, she's assisted and advised by her two best pals, Nell (Tricia Vessey) and Jenny (Field of Dreams' Gaby Hoffmann, all grown up and doing the wisecracking slut thing). They're more sexually experienced than Stream, but not more sexually satisfied, though they pretend otherwise. Aside from a couple of mildly amusing bits that exaggerate reality into farce?Jenny miming soft-porn abandon while having loveless sex with her boyfriend; horny Chad in a clinch with Stream, unsubtly directing her head southward?there's little in Coming Soon that seems original or truthful. The dialogue's college prep namechecking ("I'm not gonna pull a Frida Kahlo over the fact that he didn't call me") is too cute by half; the pseudo-French bistro music that plays over many scenes to make them "charming" is even more irritating. Stream's mom, played by Mia Farrow, is a kindhearted, sorta spacy ex-hippie you've seen too many times before?the kind of woman who says she's interested in "communicating with people from a more centered place." Spalding Gray, Peter Bogdanovich and Ryan O'Neal (who seems to have gotten an eye job from Emeril) are all wasted in typically cute/clueless "grownup" roles. Joaquin Baca-Asay's photography is undistinguished, even when you factor in budgetary constraints, but I'd imagine it's hard to be get inspired when your director learned composition from sitcoms.
If the film's title vaguely rings a bell, it's because Coming Soon was threatened with an NC-17 rating after its 1999 Sundance bow because of its depiction of teen female sexuality, including a scene where Stream has her first orgasm via water jets in Jenny's hot tub; the R-rated American Pie, a virtual Ikea catalog of male masturbation gags, was scheduled to hit theaters that summer, and some observers complained of an MPAA gender-based double standard when it came to self-pleasure. The scene stayed in without trims, and the film got an "R" anyway, but who cares? The sister-doing-it-to-herself bit is an old one, and was done with more wit and panache in The Slums of Beverly Hills. (Come to think of it, the awkward first-time blowjob has also been done before and better?notably in writer-director Susan Skoog's superb, little-seen 1998 drama Whatever.) The only saving grace is Ryan Reynolds' performance as Henry Lipschitz. He could be the next John Cusack. He draws the eye even when he's at the edge of the frame; he's sexy and smart, and utterly credible as a loner who's perfectly happy to live inside his own head. Stream is a sweet girl, but it's hard to imagine that she'd amuse a guy like Henry for very long. The kid is going places. So is Reynolds?with luck to a lead role in a romantic comedy that doesn't stink.
I'm aware that Coming Soon is a small film that's probably going to be gone from theaters in the blink of an eye, and under normal circumstances I wouldn't carpet bomb this type of fly. But the film lingered in my mind for reasons apart from its general awfulness. I'm not the kind of critic who applies the word "corrupt" to any film I happen to dislike, but in this case, it fits. Coming Soon truly does strike me as a corrupt movie?"corrupt" meaning its assumptions, when examined even in a cursory way, make one nauseous. I don't know if it's evidence of a directorial worldview or merely the product of ineptitude, but Burson seems to take many of the teens' obsessions at face value: the quest for an orgasm, for example, or the desire to appear terminally blase about all matters sexual. These aren't real teens; they're not even fable-esque facsimiles of real teens like in Clueless. They're like a 12-year-old rich girl's fantasy of teens. Their blinkered selfishness suggests burnt-out, divorced, fortysomething parents. These are the kinds of teens you see on Dawson's Creek and in films like Cruel Intentions and The Faculty: hyperarticulate fake teens foisted on us by the entertainment industry and Madison Avenue. But this never enters Burson's head, or never seems to. It's like she's bought the same hype that's at the root of her heroine's unhappiness.
The Henry Lipschitz character represents a rebellion against society's corrosive nonsense. He doesn't seem to need validation from any person, institution or cultural entity. Like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, he's aware of what's going on in the universe of contemporary teens but carefully selects which parts to participate in, rejecting anything that degrades him or makes him unhappy. Unfortunately, Coming Soon doesn't have the same appreciation for Henry that Cameron Crowe had for Lloyd. Burson likes Henry not for what he represents, only for what he can give the heroine: a nonabusive fling and a couple of orgasms. Stream doesn't deserve him; neither does the film.
At least Human Traffic has a crackerjack cast and a few good jokes. This debut film by Welsh director Justin Kerrigan is an explosion of youthful energy, but that's the problem: explosions aren't controlled. The press notes promise "an adrenaline-pumped comedy" that "chronicles the ups and downs of five friends whose weekends are filled with endless clubbing, pubbing and partying where there are no rules, no limits and no saying 'no.'"
There's clubhopping galore, sex and attempted sex and conspicuous consumption of chemicals, from booze and pot to X and coke. That's a good start for a generation-defining comedy, but Human Traffic doesn't go further?it only pretends to. The film was a hit in Great Britain and it's not hard to see why: Kerrigan, a film school brat who's all of 25, is part of the generation he portrays, and the naive, boundless energy he brings to the table probably resonated with young viewers, who might not know anything about moviemaking but can sniff out a fake in a second. But Human Traffic is a fake movie, a 90-minute burst of verbosity in which every observation about contemporary youth that should be dramatized, examined, imagined, is merely summarized. The filmmaking is synonymous with theft; I haven't seen such a collection of bald-faced, non-reinterpreted pilferings since The Replacement Killers. If it was in a hip film made between 1980 and now, you can bet Kerrigan bites it: the Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas; the pop-culture-laden conversations of Tarantino; the Star Wars theorizing of Kevin Smith; the McJob references and slackers-bonding-through-music scenes from Reality Bites; the graphics-splashed images and nervous handheld closeups in Trainspotting; even Spike Lee's single worst filmmaking innovation, the person-floating-mysteriously-down-the-street-cam. You wouldn't expect such a stylistically schizophrenic and unoriginal movie to give real insight into youth culture?and you'd be right. Kerrigan wants the film to be up-to-the-minute fresh, and drug-wise and music-wise, it is, but the cultural context is old and moldy; the main characters are barely in their mid-20s, yet their parents seem constrained by the same generational sour-persimmons moralism as the parents in youth movies from the 60s and 70s. (The hero's mother is a whore, but she's a kindly whore, like something out of an imitation Dickens movie.) The parents are boomers by birth, but they eat family-style and say things like, "Yes, dear." I kept expecting one of them to tell a story about life during the Depression. At least Coming Soon admits the existence of baby boomers, even if it caricatures and dismisses them.
Kerrigan pays lip service to the idea that there are no new realizations in coming-of-age stories, but it's a feint. Everything else in the movie seems designed to flatter the audience by confirming that their sex lives, their drugs, their slang and their songs are all special. The movie's not. The surreal sequences are presented as though they're deeply subversive, but they're actually old hat, staged in a crude, artless, literal way, like the fantasy bits on Ally McBeal. (A boss who's said to be so macho he has sperm coming out of every pore actually does. Crazy, brother!) The cool-boho-wage-slaves-against-the-system sloganeering is at least as old as the Beats (though the phrase "corporate cock-shaft" made me laugh). And to prove that he's totally plugged into the Extreme culture, Kerrigan encourages the actors to BELLOW THEIR LINES WHENEVER POSSIBLE and end sentences with a hunchbacked, shut-eyed, clench-fisted, "WOOOOOOO!" Some good performers nearly get trampled in the chaos: John Simm's verbose, impotent Jip, Shaun Parkes' black DJ-wannabe and record clerk Koop; Lorraine Pilkington's saucy LuLu. They're rebels without a cause in a movie without an original thought.