Film Reviews

Unusual Punishment

First off, a full disclosure: This reviewer considers Dostoyevsky to be terminally boring, and would sooner read just about any cereal box or, for that matter, the collected lyrics of Steely Dan.

Having said that, it's a mixed blessing that director Rob Schmidt's film Crime and Punishment in Suburbia bears only the most tenuous relation to Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel, which is about a depressed jerk who commits murder to prove his free will, but really wants to get caught so he can be redeemed within the very society that depresses him in the first place. Although producers Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon bring to the table a mastery of angst (their company, Killer Films, also gave us Happiness and Boys Don't Cry), and co-producer and screenwriter Larry Gross (True Crime) gives his all to reveal the horrors of middle America, the movie would fare as well under the title 16 Candles II: The Blood. Since it leaves its literary pedigree on the Astroturf doormat, the movie struggles to find its niche between clever suburban horror like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that big Oscar-winning thing from last year, which together leave very little of this territory uncharted.

Standing in for charming old Raskolnikov is vapid teenage cutie Roseanne Skolnik (Monica Keena), who spends most of her time smooching her equally vapid beauhunk Jimmy (James DeBello). Roseanne is a bit emotionally aloof as she endures the failing marriage of her mother, Maggie (Ellen Barkin), to stepfather Fred (Michael Ironside). While working stiff Fred aches to be loved, venting his opinion on the new Outer Limits as a bid to communicate with his totally disinterested stepchild, he's dangerously close to snapping. As the ritual of the family dinner becomes darkly farcical, with Maggie carving up a roast with an electric knife we just know isn't an arbitrary prop, Roseanne's world seems perched on the brink of oblivion.

Unlike Dostoyevsky's work, however, this world takes its sweet time collapsing into the abyss, perhaps because the story is being told through the perceptions of Roseanne's schoolmate Vincent (Vincent Kartheiser), an arty freak who stalks her every move, photographing all she does, professing both his love and lamentation. "You know, if you have fucked-up parents, there's a good chance you'll be fucked up, too," she confides to her boyfriend, and although Vincent can't hear her from his shadowy hiding place, he already knows it's true. When Maggie goes out to a piano bar with her corpulent friend Kate (Lucinda Jenney), she instantly falls for flirty barkeep Chris (Jeffrey Wright), and their first kiss becomes an installment in Vincent's still-life documentary. Soon enough, self-pitying Fred finds out, and his misery swiftly transforms to rage. Fred fancies himself the savior of Maggie and Roseanne, but alcohol and sexual torment soon detonate his noble self-image. Roseanne, falling victim to him, decides to create her own form of justice.

Because the movie is so elegantly shot and edited, it gets away with this sparse little plot for a good while. We've been to this suburban hell countless times before, of course, yet it's a shame that Crime and Punishment, for all its clichés and pat tragedy, is being released after an inferior and altogether more patronizing movie like American Beauty. The comparisons are inevitable, from the maddening lust of the father to the snapshots documenting the whole mess. But where American Beauty felt smug and self-important, this one captures much of the grunge, misdirected rage and artificial sterility of its realm. The big night of the football pep rally gets a little silly, with its exaggerated adrenaline and faux-Nazi posturing, but anyone who ever attended high school will probably find it hauntingly familiar.

The wonderful Wright (Basquiat, Shaft) doesn't have to work very hard to fill the role of Chris, but his verve nonetheless catalyzes the collapse of this already doomed American family. As Jimmy, DeBello provides a load of insight into the psyche of the unrefined domestic white boy, and his performance should not be overlooked. Somewhat less effective is Kartheiser as our narrator, whose boho stylings and obsessive behavior never quite seem plausible. Barkin and Ironside turn in somewhat caricatured performances, and to an extent, Keena follows suit. As our antiheroine, she's pretty and scary and confused, but Schmidt and Gross mute her performance with their morbid fascination, until she becomes little more than a push-up bra with an ax to grind.

Unfortunately the ax isn't even as interesting as Raskolnikov's, because that antihero's motive -- to cross the line of morality for what he assumes can be a brighter future -- has very little to do with unhappiness. Here, all that is preserved of Dostoyevsky's varied arguments is the concept that suffering leads to salvation, which, despite some superb production values, is not an adequate reason to sit in the dark for a couple of hours. To sum up in Raskolnikov's words, "Generally, there are remarkably few people born who have a new thought, who are capable, if only slightly, of saying anything new."

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Gregory Weinkauf