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Ecologists must weep with envy when they witness how efficiently pop culture recycles its droppings. One era’s pulp returns as a new generation’s blue-chip entertainment. Comic books reappear as megabuck movies. Cheapjack Columbia and Republic serials inspire Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters. Almost every property, however childish or shoddy, resurrects, packaged more lavishly than in its original incarnation.
The specters of Cheech and Chong hover over this week’s new releases. In the ’70s, hipsters whose taste in comedy ran to Woody Allen, Monty Python, the Firesign Theatre, and other cerebral fare sneered at the cannabis-addled pair’s albums and screen farces, dismissing them as fit only for adolescent potheads with diminished capacities. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I enjoyed them, no doubt because I made sure to arrive at the theater as stoned as C&C pretended to be. However, in that altered state, I probably would have guffawed through Schindler’s List.) Moviegoers confident that C&C were long ago laid to rest will be surprised to feel their presence in the bong-smoke images and plethora of ganja jokes that inform Outside Providence, and in the dilapidated ice cream truck prominently featured in Chill Factor, reminiscent of the vehicle from which the zany dopers dealt grass in Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams.
Set in Pawtucket, R.I., in the early ’70s, Outside Providence uneasily fuses two sensibilities: the gross-out romanticism of writer-producers Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) and the working-class neo-realism of writer-producer-director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill and American Buffalo). As adolescent-male-coming-of-age movies go—and they’re not going to go away as long as teenage boys constitute such a large segment of the box-office demographic—Outside Providence is well above average. Swiftly paced and uniformly well acted, it offers more laughs and heart-tugs than most examples of that genre. But when considered more than casually, the film collapses under the weight of its contradictions and contrivances.
Adapted from Peter Farrelly’s 1988 novel of the same name, Outside Providence is the saga of Timothy Dunphy (engagingly played by Shawn Hatosy), an adolescent whose blue-collar world consists of a gruff but affectionate widowed father (whiskery Alec Baldwin), a crippled younger brother (Tommy Bone), a three-legged dog, and a gaggle of perpetually stoned high school pals. After crashing into a parked police car one wild night, Timothy is banished to Cornwall Academy, a tony Connecticut prep school, where, while leaping economic and social barriers, he romances Jane Weston (Amy Smart), a brainy cashmere blonde, and finds a sense of direction for his hitherto aimless existence.
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Unlike writer-director Wes Anderson’s vastly superior Rushmore, a boarding-school comedy-drama governed by a strong, singular vision, Outside Providence fails to meld the divergent personalities of its creators. The Farrellys contribute their trademark coarse humor: Characters are nicknamed Dildo and Jizz; vomit, snot, jackoff, spastic, and fag jokes abound; dialogue includes lines like “You wouldn’t know a classy broad if she took a dump on your head.” (Need I bother to tell you how the students alter their school’s name?) And the brothers’ sentimental side is manifested in Timothy and Jane’s cuddlesome but chaste relationship.
The Farrellys’ raunchy/tender writing clashes with Corrente’s devotion to inspirational realism. He burdens their crude gags and fluffy romanticism with uplifting moralistic passages: Timothy’s concern for his disabled brother and anxiety about his emotionally disturbed mother’s fate; his sober reaction to a druggie buddy’s death; his heroic, self-sacrificing efforts to rescue Jane from a predicament that clouds her future. Outside Providence’s lowdown and high-minded intentions tend to cancel out each other. Condolatory scenes empathetic to the plights of homosexuals and Jews cravenly counterbalance its transgressive homophobic and anti-Semitic japes.
I can’t say that I found Outside Providence unenjoyable, though by the end, my head was throbbing from the nonstop soundtrack barrage of ’70s oldies by the Who, the Allman Brothers, Argent, Mountain, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Yes, and Ten Years After. (Why must the dialogue in teen comedies be drowned out by Dick Clark Golden Goodies infomercials?) But leaving the theater, I felt uncomfortably manipulated, as though a classy broad had taken a you know what on my head.
No single movie reviewer could convey the crumminess of Hugh Johnson’s Chill Factor. I’d have to call in a squad of scribes to assist me in this Sisyphean chore.
Screenwriters Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda fumble around for a half-hour before slipping their gimmicky high-concept thriller into gear. In an interminable prologue containing some laughably cheap special effects, we witness a disaster on a South Pacific atoll where 18 American military men are killed during the covert testing of a new explosive chemical. Only Dr. Richard Long (David Paymer), the scientist who invented the compound, and Capt. Andrew Brynner (Peter Firth, in a performance unashamedly channeling Anthony Hopkins), the officer-in-charge, survive. For security reasons, the superpatriotic captain takes the fall and is court-martialed to a 10-year prison term, while the scientist goes free.
During his incarceration, Brynner bitterly turns against his country and vengefully plans to steal Long’s formula and sell it to international terrorists. Upon his release, he travels to Montana, where the remorseful Long struggles to protect the world from his invention. (The screenwriters have the effrontery to make the remorseful scientist utter, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” J. Robert Oppenheimer’s appalled response to witnessing the first atomic bomb detonation.) Brynner shoots Long, who somehow manages to drag himself to a diner where he passes vials of the explosive (code-named “Elvis”) to Tim (Skeet Ulrich), a night shift manager, and Arlo (Cuba Gooding Jr.), an ice cream deliveryman. Before expiring, he instructs the pair to transport the compound to a military base 90 miles away and warns them that the substance must be stored at less than 50 degrees or it will destroy all life within hundreds of miles.
After slogging through all this cumbersome exposition, which includes several dozen gruesome throat-slashings and bloody point-blank gunshot executions, director Hugh Johnson finally launches what turns out to be a familiar chase picture—Speed meets The Wages of Fear. Tim and Arlo take flight, driving the ice cream truck through the Montana mountains (unconvincingly impersonated by Utah promontories) pursued by Brynner and his band of neo-fascist profiteers, as well as a redneck sheriff. Johnson’s attempts to build suspense prove futile—obviously, if the chemical detonated, the movie would instantly end—and he lacks the formal skills to stage and shoot action sequences compellingly. (At one point, he’s reduced to plagiarizing the much-anthologized cliff leap from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Ulrich and Gooding Jr.’s talents are squandered on paper-thin characters—especially the latter, whose dialogue largely consists of variations on the mantra “Oh shit!”
Derivative, witless, and repulsively brutal, Chill Factor, like Dr. Long’s deadly invention, deserves to be stored in a refrigerated vault and disinterred only in the unlikely event of a guitar-pick shortage. CP