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Like many recent American independent features, writer-director James Merendino’s SLC Punk! starts out strong but fails to go the distance. The filmmaker’s originality, energy, and nonconformist spirit illuminate the opening reels, but by the middle, the movie exposes its underlying reactionary agenda: It’s The Big Chill for aging punkers.

Merendino bases SLC Punk! on his own experiences as a teenager in Reagan-era Salt Lake City. His loosely knit seriocomic narrative affectionately chronicles the misadventures of anarchic late-adolescent outcasts in that Mormon stronghold—punks, poseurs, mods, and crackpots. The opening scene strikes a menacing tone: Blue-haired, razor-blade-sporting Stevo (Matthew Lillard) and Mohawk-cropped Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian) ambush and club two unsuspecting rednecks whom they regard as “America incarnate.”

Having shown that his male protagonists mean business, Merendino then offers us glimpses of their vulnerability. In one of the film’s liveliest sequences, Stevo debates his future with his divorced parents, a pair of domesticated ’60s rebels luxuriating in ’80s materialism and New Age benevolence. They timidly ask him to consider attending Harvard Law School, but he defensively rejects a life of “money, greed, fascism, and triviality.” Meanwhile, Bob, the alienated spawn of less privileged circumstances, struggles to find sustaining relationships and a sense of purpose.

With one exception, SLC Punk! showcases an ensemble of talented young players. Lillard is toothily engaging and manages to carry off the difficult trick of delivering lengthy asides to the camera. Goorjian strikes a fine balance between Bob’s estrangement and emotional need, and Annabeth Gish, usually condemned to thankless nice-girl roles, clearly relishes being cast against type as Trish, a tough punkette. The cast’s weak link is Summer Phoenix as Brandy, a rich girl who invites the punks to a party. The sister of River and Joaquin is unlikely to enhance the Phoenix clan’s stature until she loosens up a bit.

The movie’s secondary characters contribute its strongest moments, but they, unfortunately, disappear by the plot’s midpoint. Mark, menacingly played by German heartthrob Til Schweiger, is an acquisitive nutter who inherits a fortune after an airplane accident claims the lives of his parents. A peripheral hard-core fellow traveler with a bottomless stash of drugs, he’s a borderline psychopath, shifting in a heartbeat from hospitable to homicidal. (He’s the butt of the film’s best joke, involving a stolen car and the Great Salt Lake.) Sean (Devon Sawa), a feckless young drug dealer, finds himself running from police and unwittingly absorbs 100 tabs of acid through his skin. He zonks in reaction and resurrects as a street freak.

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But SLC Punk! turns cautionary and squishily formulaic as it winds down. In a flashback, we learn that the film’s protagonists did not become rebels out of their contempt for mainstream social values or in reaction to the repressive aridity of their environment, but out of resentment for being rejected as losers by their jock and prom-queen classmates. In a crudely telegraphed turn of events, one of the main characters dies of a drug overdose. The movie ends smugly with pat speeches asserting, “There’s no future in anarchy,” and “You can do more damage inside rather than outside the system.”

Punk turns out to be just another lifestyle option—easily adopted and abandoned. Interviewed in the film’s press material, Merendino indicates that his own rebellion was less cosmetic. “Instead of staying in town and annoying the locals, I moved to Rome and got very political. I was heavily involved with the Palestinian conflict, and was very into the situation in South Africa.” But he refuses to grant such seriousness and authenticity to his characters, who are viewed as passing through and ultimately outgrowing an antisocial phase in their adolescence. Merendino muses, “We’re all poseurs in that we’re all full of it, in one way or another. The something that we are is, for the most part, the something we’re pretending to be. We all have to pretend a little to be ourselves and when we move on and become something else, we tend to look back and laugh at how phony we were.”

So, who’s the real phony—Stevo, who betrays his convictions for a Harvard Law degree, or the filmmaker himself?

Before the inmates took control of the Hollywood asylum, certain common-sense rules applied. Example: Do not co-star Don Knotts and Sophia Loren in a romantic comedy. Director Jeff Pollack’s Lost & Found confirms the abandonment of sanity in contemporary Tinseltown by teaming David Spade and Sophie Marceau in a mind-bogglingly leaden farce.

Spade plays Dylan Ramsey, a struggling L.A. restaurateur infatuated with Lila (Marceau), an aspiring French cellist who moves into his apartment complex. In an attempt to win her affection, he kidnaps Jack, Lila’s feisty cairn terrier, hoping to appear heroic in her eyes when he recovers the “missing” mutt. But Jack swallows an expensive ring belonging to Dylan’s business partner and cannot be returned until he expels the bijou. While waiting for it to emerge, Dylan pretends to assist Lila in tracking down her pet and tries to worm his way into her heart, a task complicated by the unexpected appearance of narcissistic René (Patrick Bruel), Lila’s rich, handsome ex-lover.

The screenplay, by Spade and collaborators J.B. Cook and Marc Meeks, unwisely blends this frothy romantic pursuit with an assortment of farting, ass-crack, puke, and dogshit gags. But even if they had blue-penciled this scatological kindergarten stuff, Lost & Found would not have survived Pollack’s self-destructive miscasting. However effectively the shrimpy, waspish Spade served as a foil for the late Chris Farley in Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, he sorely lacks the physical presence and lightness of spirit to partner Marceau, whose radiant beauty is matched by charm and warmth. (Not that runty guys don’t deserve or can’t win the love of striking women. But to do so, they’ve got to have certain qualities—tenderness, wit, empathy—that Spade fails to project.) At the sneak preview I attended, the audience responded to their first kiss with a hushed gasp of revulsion.

Spade is more comfortably teamed with Artie Lange, who plays his dimwitted assistant, Wally. A hairy, bloated performer obviously engaged to trigger memories of Farley, Lange shares several undraped (albeit nonsexual) bedroom sequences with Spade. Pollack avoids staging similar scenes with Spade and Marceau, apparently on the assumption that they would drive viewers from the theater. One has to wonder about the logic, not to mention the subtext, of a romantic comedy in which the protagonist bundles with his buddy rather than with the object of his desire.

Lost & Found’s forced comedic climax takes place at a charity event where Spade, for reasons too inane to explain, indulges in an interminable Neil Diamond impersonation—a gambit that pushes the film beyond lame to lamentable. In the frenetic music video accompanying the closing credits, Marceau and Bruel reunite to romp on a beach, and Spade and Lange are back in bed frolicking in their undies. Go figure!CP