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and Wash West

Panic Room is every woman’s worst nightmare come to terrifying cinematic life: You’re a beautiful, intelligent, award-winning actress just a tad past her Hollywood prime whose attempts at mogulhood have gone nowhere, so you’ve agreed to star in the ultimate fem-jep role for a famously perverse director. Worse, in the script, Jared Leto is trying to get to you—and you’re supposed to prevent him.

Director David Fincher wins no points for casting Jodie Foster as the central character in this revolting passion play of the class war. Her Oscar-winning chops have deteriorated so much that crinkled-up, I’m-trying-to-understand-this eyes and parted thin lips have become her signature look whether she’s getting shot into a New Age outer space or taking huffing, frantic breaths inside a heavily reinforced vault for paranoid bourgeois. And with Fincher’s attitude toward women—confused, maybe; kind of grossed-out; probably contemptuous—the whole exercise is bound to eliminate the last clinging traces of non-paternity-revealing feminism from Foster’s public persona.

Foster plays Meg Altman, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a pharmaceutical executive so powerful that even street thugs have heard of him. She’s looking for a safe home in a safe neighborhood and will settle for nothing less than a safe million square feet of National Historic Registered space. Rich husband or no, she must have a place with six fireplaces just for herself and her pain-in-the-ass daughter, a sassy diabetic who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio (Kristen Stewart). One of the dwelling’s amenities is a “panic room,” a hi-tech vault with all kinds of monitors, sensitive lasers, and electro toys wherein the frightened homeowner may cower while her home is being invaded by greedy representatives of the great unwashed. Lack of Power Bars notwithstanding, the room may contain a good deal of cash that was stashed away by the deceased richie who last owned the house. The very first night the Altman females spend in their cavernous new home, three bickering hoodlums break into all this womanly re-establishment of self and proceed to take a tire iron to it, ostensibly in search of the dough.

Fincher’s simmering class consciousness comes to a rolling boil as he dissects our stratified society. There’s the clamped-down, discreet Mrs. Altman, who gently deflects probings about the provenance of her money and name. There are the overcoiffed servants of the rich—real-estate agents who flit through empty palaces they’ll never inhabit, more royalist than the Queen Mother in their stiff new designer clothes. And, of course, there are the feelthy home invaders, who “present,” as drag artists say, as ethnics—security expert Forest Whitaker aside— despite their real backgrounds. Leto is a thug with a secret—and incongruous, styled-in-prison cornrows. And the masked, mysterious psycho who has unaccountably come along for the mayhem calls himself “Raoul,” even if he’s really only Dwight Yoakam, the very model of redneck movie monsterdom.

The pristine white vessels lock themselves in the panic room while the thugs try to coax, smoke, or scare them out—which leaves little room for dramatic development. Most communication takes place silently through the surveillance monitors, and Fincher is forced to bounce between the head-scratching thieves asking, “What the hell is she doing?” and a visual explanation of the resourceful victims rigging up some sophisticated Home Alone-style anti-bad-guy device.

Unpleasantness blasts back and forth from both sides of the reinforced steel door for a while, a couple of outside dashes are made by the barefoot, hard-bodied Foster, and eventually, the drama reverts to the invaders’ turning on each other. From here, the film turns confusing, unfinished, and gruesome. Fincher’s artiness—the cold emptiness of his interior spaces, the cliched Fantastic Voyage-esque camerawork that follows wires through walls with whooshing movement, the fire that inexplicably burns icy blue-white—further stylizes the ritualistic, yuppified allegory. Before too long, you’re rooting not for individuals but for lifestyles.

Wash West and Richard Glatzer know better than to emphasize the difference between so-called mainstream movie-making and pornography; the co-directors draw the line between real-life sex and porn, a much finer and more sensible distinction. The Fluffer is a collaboration by West, a pseudonymous and much-awarded former porn director, and Glatzer, whose 1993 indie Grief was well regarded on the film-festival circuit. Like the porn world itself, The Fluffer promises titillation but delivers drab reality, its tricky love triangle collapsing into a spectacular tangle.

Nice young classic-film fan and aspiring Hollywood cameraman Sean (Michael Cunio) plunges into lustful obsession with a headlong tumble. He’s just moved to Tinseltown to immerse himself in the greatness of film when he meets the personification of his celluloid dreams and puts all his aspirations for a conventional career on hold. A rented copy of Citizen Kane turns out to harbor a sex spoof starring Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney), a gorgeous narcissist whose self-contained perfection makes him the ideal porn star. Riveted, Sean practically floats into the offices of Men of Janus Films and asks for a job behind the camera. His real goal is to get as close to the star as possible, but Johnny Rebel is a construct, a porn Pinocchio, and the real boy inside is gay-for-pay Mikey, a scared, selfish screw-up trying to juggle his love for smart, tough stripper Babylon (Roxanne Day, a vibrant cross between Michele Hicks and Debi Mazar) and the time-collapsing void of crystal meth.

In a series of sharply drawn scenes by turns satiric and sorrowful, Sean reaches out for the reality of Mikey but can’t find it, even when he’s conscripted for the humiliating dream-come-true role of on-set fluffer. Better than anyone, porn actors understand the difference between sex and intimacy, but Sean is a civilian, and his disappointment in his inability to move Mikey beyond the effects of workaday sexual contact is heartbreaking. In between labeling videotapes (West, the industry insider, sends up adult-vid sendups with titles like Tranny Get Your Gun), Sean drifts toward Babylon, covers for the self-destructive Mikey, and tries to reconcile his “bisexuality” with his idol’s definition of straightness.

The film mutates from a graceful, moving psychological exploration to a mediocre melodrama when murder and pregnancy intrude, but The Fluffer’s unsentimental glare into the cold heart of hot sex is far more clear-eyed than Boogie Nights’ neon-lit mush. CP