Here’s what I learned: when you remix Brideshead Revisited with “Welcome Back Kotter,” it’s always going to turn to shit. It’s not enough to just desperately donkey punch a copy of the Cliffs Notes for The Great Gatsby until all that’s left is a crying slavering shadow of copies, but then emptying a trashcan of miserably clunky dialogue and quotes ripped out of a first year philosophy class all over it isn’t going to help matters. Fred Durst came along, and free from the tyranny of The Mouse House, filled the rest of his film with fucks and shits like a swear eclair. The result is a trite hour and a half that drudges across the stage like a high school debater with a sweating problem and a severe stutter, trying its damnedest to depress the audience into believing it’s somehow profound.
It’s 1970’s New York, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. This story wouldn’t work in any time period, whether it’s the 1940’s the later half of the picture tries to capture, or modern day, or even the year 3022 where hamburgers eat people and Rand McNally clutches the globe in a mighty mailed fist. Anyway, Charlie Banks (Jesse Eisenberg) and his best buddy in the world Danny (Chris Marquette), are at a party, because that’s the only way screenwriters know how to have teenagers interact. They run into the town bully, Mick (Jason Ritter), a blue collar thug who’s disgusted by the rich kids he terms “boojie.” How a tinhorn greaser would know the term bourgeois is just one of the many dialogue faults of the film, where writer Peter Elkoff deems it appropriate for teens to say things like “hale and hearty.” So yeah, Mick beats the fuck out of some rich jocks and instead of breaking into song and dance as most movies do these days, he gets arrested when Charlie Banks turns him in to the cops, only to recant his witnessing hours later.
Flash forward to Ashby College, a columns and quad minor ivy wannabe in New England or somewhere equally mayo on wonderbread. Charlie and Danny are roommates, and sometime cohorts of three of the first stock characters that fell out when Elkoff shook the shoebox of Salinger also-rans: effete spoiled rich snob Leo (Sebastian Stan), Greek heiress betrothed to an arranged beau Nia (Gloria Votsis), and senator’s daughter/photographer Mary (Eva Amurri). Because otherwise it’d be Harry Potter without magic or likeable characters, along comes Mick to spend a night or two with his boys. Mick charms his way into the crowd by acting like a circus bear who suddenly learned to talk, and so Leo and the ladies keep him around for amusement. And from there it jerks from expected cliche event to expected cliche event, braced by Charlie’s godawful and erratic narration, until it ends in a bad Gatsby nod. Let’s see: Mick steals Charlie’s gal, check. Mick beats someone up, check. Spring formal shakeup, check.
Jesse Eisenberg is too good to be in the film, and you will understand why if you ever get the pleasure of seeing The Squid and the Whale or Adventureland. However, instead of the depressive neurotic or nerdish manic he shows in both those films, here he’s merely a frantic nebbish. He frowns and twitches his way across the screen like Woody Allen playing Hamlet. Idiots describe him as the poor man’s Michael Cera, because they don’t understand that while Cera plays variations on the lisp of George Michael in every role. Eisenberg is actually able to show range. If he popped up as a serial killer or a rock star, I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s not quite Ben Foster psychotic, but he’s a reliable straight man.
The rest of the cast is shameful, culled mostly it seems from Freddy vs. Jason. Danny strikes me as what Spielberg was aiming for with the greaser look for Shia LeBouf in Indiana Jones and the Tragic Mistake, only with Wil Wheaton’s painful Jersey brogue from Toy Soldiers. As a rich kid trying to play street tough, he works, only because he’s so obviously neither, and all I can say is at least Durst didn’t try to infuse him with his own wigger riffing. Gloris Votsis looks Greek, kind of like a stripped down version of Nia Vardalos, only without any emotion or energy. Eva Amurri is the least enchanting lead actress in all of cinema. She fell out of Susan Sarandon’s vagina, but without getting any of her mom’s talent. Unfortunately, she did get her facial structure. She speaks as if she’s auditioning for a nasal congestion commercial, which I guess is supposed to express cultured upbringing. Just because the dialogue’s stale and chunky doesn’t mean you have to chew it up and cough it out, boobie. At least you aren’t Sebastian Stan, whose Leo came across like a Kohl’s grade Jude Law, on the shelf next to the Sorny and Magnetbox televisions. Jude Law had to go full drag and fuck Jim Carrey to get any career back he once had, so start practicing “Wig in a Box,” Sebastian. But they all pale in comparison to Jason Ritter, whose Mick is this bizarre cross between James Franco’s stoned squint and John Travolta’s Vinnie Barbarino. He’s about as threatening as one of those shirtless dudes who stand in front of Abercrombie and Fitch, which is where you’ll find him in about six months, regretting ever listening to “The Chocolate Starfish.”
I’d love to blame Fred Durst, but the fact of the matter is his directoral style seems to be dependent on bringing absolutely nothing to the picture. He doesn’t make any sort of mark on the flick, or deliver any sort of interesting voice. He takes what he’s given by the author, and pretty much portrays what’s on the page. He’s a camera tripod, and he’ll continue to get work, because he won’t do anything outside the box. Which I guess is a form of success. Everyone will walk away from this film without scars, because it’s just that forgettable.
Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.