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The Kids Aren't Alright

Fledgling director Jonas Akerlund spins the next hip dope flick

Even under our current government, drugs are still something of a problem in society, which means that the rockin' and reelin' Spun hasn't arrived too late to buzz with significance. In modern pop culture, being young, hooked, miserable, depraved and endlessly self-pitying reached its zenith of coolness about a decade ago, with professional moaner Kurt Cobain and seemingly stable actor River Phoenix reigning as the campaign's poster boys in between emblematic movies like Less Than Zero and Trainspotting. Thus, as a hip dope flick with a groovy sense of doom, Spun can't be called pioneering in the slightest. Nonetheless, the project defies its inherent redundancy with insanely enthusiastic thematic and stylistic pilfering, adding up to a stunning greatest-hits package for this troubled-youth subgenre.

As has become the standard with these films, our protagonist is a pathetic young male addict, in this case a college dropout, romantic loser and speed freak named Ross (Jason Schwartzman, rather uncharismatically channeling Dustin Hoffman). Less a man with a golden arm than a dork with a dilapidated Volvo, Ross lives to score crystal meth, tooling over to the ruined Southern California hovel of twitchy dealer Spider Mike (John Leguizamo, playing manic, of all things). Inside the crappy shack -- apparently designed by Beavis and Butt-Head -- Ross immediately finds himself tweaking with Spider Mike's nasty girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari) and their repugnantly cutesy houseguest, a visiting Vegas stripper named Nikki (Brittany Murphy). Meanwhile, Spider Mike and a dubious, pizza-faced lad named Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) wig out over some lost drugs and a video game involving -- tellingly -- belligerent monkeys. Drug-addled danger is afoot, Hollywood royalty play dirtbags again, and the adventure has begun.

If you want to boil down this wild ride, you could call it Requiem for Three Days in the Valley. Basically, a gaggle of loosely connected idiots stirs up trouble in the trashy streets north of L.A. while we're pounded with "drug experience" time-lapse trickery, dilating pupils and other extreme close-ups, wall-to-wall bleach-bypass cinematography (popularized in Three Kings) and potently show-offy hallucinations. What makes it work is that fledgling feature director Jonas Akerlund and cinematographer Eric Broms (together responsible for music videos by Roxette and Madonna) mix genuine humor and pathos with their supersaturated visual overkill. As such, their work becomes more than just a cranky, sun-drenched rip-off of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The kids here tweak so often and so intensely -- you can actually hear their adrenal systems frying -- that they make Aronofsky's junkies look like Mouseketeers (if only that reference still meant "innocents").

From Rushmore to Rush: Jason Schwartzman stars as a romantic loser and speed freak.
Newmarket Films
From Rushmore to Rush: Jason Schwartzman stars as a romantic loser and speed freak.

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Not rated

Also unlike Requiem -- and distinct from Gary Oldman's poignant Nil by Mouth -- Spun doesn't feel like a sadistic therapy session about junk and Oedipal issues but rather a therapeutic, tongue-in-cheek farce upon the threadbare downward spiral. That rookie screenwriters Will De Los Santos and Creighton Vero manage to keep their story from becoming a hyperactive joke is thanks largely to the central character known as the Cook (Mickey Rourke, in top form). As Nikki's totally grody sugar daddy and source of the zip, the Cook is a truly lost soul, a funny-sad cowboy caricature hunkered down over his meth lab in an airless motel squat. When the Cook requires a chauffeur for errands, including ingredient runs and helping Nikki with her pocket pooch Taco (which has turned green from dope fumes), Ross gets sucked into their freak show. Ever desperate for the next tweak, all involved earn themselves the definition of the movie's title.

It's a rare feat in any movie to fling incessant nihilism and ugliness at an audience without eventually seeming tediously petulant. Here Leguizamo's ill-advised leather hip-huggers (and much more ill-advised lack thereof) are guaranteed to turn the stomach. As if that weren't enough, we also get graphic representations of Suvari taking a dump (somebody notify the Academy about this talented girl), and of Schwartzman engaging in hard-core sex with a very unfortunate stripper (Chloe Hunter) who ends up lashed to his flophouse bed for days, naked and duct-taped. Worst of all, we're forced to endure two pointless driving montages set to whiny songs by former Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan (who scored the movie between its plentiful rock classics). Yet somehow the project leavens its grotesqueries with wit, truly funny supporting characters and even a couple of unexpectedly touching soliloquies.

As with many first features, Spun becomes dizzying as Akerlund crams it full of every novel device he can think up: There's stunt casting (Blondie's Deborah Harry as a bull dyke, Judas Priest's Rob Halford as a gay porn shop clerk, Corgan as a Warholesque doctor); there's sludge-bucket pop culture (pro wrestling, Peter Stormare as a mullet-headed reality-show cop stuck in a riff on the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video); and there's Rourke's fantastical, quasi-patriotic paean to pussy. Akerlund and crew use their full arsenal of lenses and editing techniques in service of leaving you spun, but it's undeniable that this movie was produced by steady hands and thoughtful minds.

 
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