Actor-turned-auteur Peter Berg hits the big screen with perhaps the year’s most jaundiced take on human nature. Very Bad Things is billed as a black comedy, but you may notice that it’s not very funny. Sporadically intriguing and entertaining, yes, but not very funny at all.
That might not be a very bad thing, except that the film is written and structured in very broad terms that would lend themselves best to a funny movie. For one thing, humor helps leaven the kind of blood-strewn tableaux that this film painstakingly sets up. For another, it would help make the characters recognizably human, if not exactly likable.
Likability is nowhere on the agenda for this movie, which has five friends roadtripping from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the perfect setting for a debauched bachelor party feting pending groom Kyle (Jon Favreau of Swingers fame). The festivities are pumped up by drink and drugs, with woozy camerawork subtituted for storytelling. After snorting prodigious quantities of cocaine, the men prepare for the main event, the arrival of Tina, a stripper/hooker played by newly reformed porn queen Kobe Tai (billed here as Carla Scott).
The presence of a real veteran of the sex trade adds a queasy verisimilitude to the next scene, which has Michael (Jeremy Piven) retiring to the bathroom with the party girl for some energetic trick-turning. So enthusiastic is Michael’s lovemaking that he accidentally impales Tina on a coat hanger, where she dies instantly. As the pool of blood spreads, nominal ringleader Robert (Christian Slater) convinces the gang that they don’t want to call the cops — better to dismember Tina’s body and then bury her out in the desert. The rest of the guys agree, some reluctantly. Naturally, complications ensue.
Hitchcock might have made something out of this, but certainly not with this cast of unappealing, nearly indistinguishable little cretins. The men are all bellies of fire and hearts of darkness, while the women are bitches scorned. Cameron Diaz musters some charm as Kyle’s wedding-obsessed bride-to-be Laura, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is nicely ferocious as the wife of Adam (Daniel Stern), who’s suffering a nervous breakdown over the whole affair and may or may not have confessed everything to her. Christian Slater defibrillates his flatlined career by playing a showy hothead. He’s a long way from Kuffs and Pump Up the Volume, and seems to have lost any lingering interest in being America’s sweetheart. With this increased cynicism comes an amplification of that Jack Nicholson sneer that just makes him difficult to watch.
Unlike There’s Something About Mary, an obvious point of reference for bad-taste comedies, Very Bad Things never succeeds in creating its own world. In the absence of any compelling context for the film’s resolute grimness, it just seems deliberately, obstinately callous. The moral of the story may be “Don’t fuck with hookers,” or “Careful around sharp objects.” It certainly isn’t “Love your wife” or “Don’t make fun of cripples.”
Still, these characters have a moral blankness that I found grimly appropriate. The death of a hooker barely seems worth commenting on, except inasmuch as dead hookers tend to attract police investigations. The film’s second murder is treated nearly as callously — the act only takes on some gravity when one of the gang notes that, ferchrissakes, the poor guy might have had kids. (There’s another moral: “It’s better to kill bachelors.”)
I’m tempted to extend this blankness to the movie itself, which seems more interested in devising grisly plot twists than in actually making something out of these increasingly outlandish situations. The bleak final sequence, however, really does stick in the throat. It seems clear that Berg is finally condeming the vapidity of his characters by consigning them to a cinematic fate akin to that of the circus freak. The grotesqueness of the last scene, sort of like a Muench painting set in the suburbs, is authentically disturbing. Without approaching the artistry of contenders Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbors, Very Bad Things is, by a margin, the nastiest American comedy of the year. That’s something.