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Had On_Line appeared in the middle of the dot-com frenzy, it might have come across as a cheap, hastily made effort to cash in on the headlines of the day. Now Jeb Weintrob’s directorial debut, about romantically confused New Yorkers and their addictions to DSL-enabled sex, just seems really dated, in that way that artifacts from the recent past seem most out-of-fashion of all. If the movie were a carton of milk, its sell-by date would be November 2000.

On_Line gives us the story of two 20-something roommates who, when not seeing Tron at the movie house on the corner or masturbating into old socks, are working to get their webcam up and running. Their apartment, though authentically messy, is also huge and sprawling, with new rooms seeming to appear in every scene. With space for not only a couple dozen computer monitors but also a 10-foot bar—illuminated from above by dramatically recessed lighting—the place is the size of something you’d buy after the IPO, not while you’re still trying to build the company. (That it’s located on a street with a view of the Twin Towers is an early clue the movie has been in the can a while.)

John Roth (Josh Hamilton) is the thoughtful half of the pair, a good-looking, messy-haired, melancholy sort who pines for his ex-girlfriend and keeps a brooding online video diary, which he records while swilling peppermint schnapps straight from the bottle. On_Line opens with scenes—shot, like the rest of the film, on digital video—of John receiving a glowing birthday cake from that ex-girlfriend, whom we see only at butt level. “I always got what I wanted back then,” John tells us in sighing and superfluous voice-over. “And what I wanted wasn’t much: just to be with her forever.”

John’s roommate is Moe Curley (Harold Perrineau), a bit of a smooth-talking cliché—a Lothario who fucks women in nightclub bathrooms and likes to give his roommate pep talks about dating. Together the two run a Web site called Intercon-X.com, which allows people to chat with a stable of desirables via webcam. Moe is dating Moira (Isabel Gillies), who works at a nearby cafe, downs Manhattans and Valium, and has her own favorite Web site, a morbid chat room for suicidal types called Finalexit.net. This in turn connects us to young Ed (Eric Millegan), a gay college student in Ohio who, when he’s not trading bits of black humor on Finalexit, likes to run up his credit-card bill having Web sex with Intercon-X’s resident chicken hawk, Al (John Fleck, one of the NEA Four).

The last character to be dragged into the cyber-ring is Jordan Nash (the Maxim-ready Vanessa Ferlito), another one of Intercon-X’s featured attractions. After a brief online flirtation with John that Weintrob seems to believe is the ’00s equivalent of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally, Jordan winds up as one of Moe’s toilet-top conquests. Her days (and nights) seem to consist of sitting around her apartment and waiting for her computer to make the god-awful screeching noise—I think it’s supposed to sound like the growl of a cheetah, or perhaps a jaguar—that signals a customer requesting her presence online. She usually responds to the noise by shrugging, stubbing out her joint, and making her way to her computer, grabbing a wig or a dildo on the way.

Weintrob, who wrote the script with Andrew Osborne, finds some effective visual strategies to mimic the always-online lifestyles of his characters, moving from split screens to a series of smaller boxes that suggest the open windows of a computer desktop and then back to a conventional frame. But his narrative skills are both less assured and less inventive: Though he begins playing around with some intriguing themes, he never explores them with anything like real depth. There’s the fact that most of the action takes place in Manhattan, an island that looms for the characters outside it as some kind of free-living promised land. And yet the Manhattanites in the film spend almost all of their time inside their apartments in the blue light of their monitors. That thematic thread winds up, like a few others, overlooked, hanging listlessly from the edge of the story.

A bigger problem is Hamilton, our lead, a likable actor who has trouble gaining purchase onscreen. Bolstered by high-voltage star power, he might stand out as a refreshingly down-to-earth and quiet presence. But in a picture such as On_Line, which he’s pretty much asked to carry, he seems to absorb energy rather than give it off—his acting is straight from the black-hole school. His scenes with Perrineau, whose character is almost startlingly manic, make Hamilton’s milquetoast qualities all the more apparent and problematic. Their conversations are like dialogues between the Road Runner and Gandhi.

A lot has been made about what kind of art will be inspired by the horrors of Sept. 11. A fainter but equally timely question is what kind of culture will be produced in reaction to the Internet boom. The output hasn’t been too impressive so far, and the recent news that Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the writers who brought us The Nanny Diaries, are working on a new dot-com-themed novel doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. And though it’s certainly not bad enough to doom this emerging genre altogether, neither does On_Line. CP