Risa Bramon Garcia was a casting director before making her first film, 200 Cigarettes, a cannily assembled ensemble vehicle for a cast of dozens of boldface hot-list names guaranteed to win the youth vote. The film (written by Shana Larsen) follows couples, triples, and friends as they wind their way through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 1981, bickering about love and their various definitions of a good time before converging at the party of an extremely neurotic hostess. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a pressure cooker filled with something wonderful losing half its contents to a pressure miscalculation—what’s left in the pot is truly delicious. Shame about all those potatoes on the ceiling.

Garcia’s New York is a New Wave fairyland, in which lights sparkle, clubs and bars dot every corner, and everyone loose in the city is young and trendy, swathed in the likes of pink tights and asymmetrical haircuts. But the inhabitants are bracingly recognizable—(mostly) every character behaves in a believable fashion—and every situation, social or romantic, is achingly familiar. The device that links them, unfortunately, is a lame cliché with racist overtones—at some point every partygoer finds him- or herself inside a plush, discofied taxi, driven by a “booty”-seeking black Cupid (Dave Chappelle), always ready to dispense love advice and ace service to the white kids.

While hostess Monica (Martha Plimpton) slowly self-destructs over homemade crab dip in her fantastically kitschy East Village apartment, the guests roam the city streets, hitting bars and diners at random in an effort to get smashed and/or find a partner. Kevin and Lucy (Paul Rudd and Courtney Love) are longtime “just friends” trying to fit in some drinks before the party and negotiate Kevin’s breakup with a self-involved performance artist (Janeane Garofalo). Lucy’s focus on a hunky oaf of a bartender (Ben Affleck, in a masterfully funny pantomime performance) throws into relief the tension between the friends, their attitudes toward sex, and Lucy’s possibly ulterior motives. In another bar, sleek, tony New Wavers Caitlyn and Bridget (Angela Featherstone and Nicole Parker) vow to go home alone for the first New Year’s Eve in recent memory while jockeying for men’s attention in a muffled war of matchbook phone numbers and underhanded flirting. Eric (Brian McCardie), an Irish artist, caroms between women as they serially dump him for gross sexual inadequacy, and a pair of wannabe punks (Casey Affleck and Guillermo Diaz) troll for girls while trying to deliver a mysterious package.

In the most obvious and shoddily characterized segments, Christina Ricci overplays tacky Long Island teen Val, who along with her more cautious friend Stephie (Gaby Hoffmann) is determined to play with the big kids for a night in the East Village, despite getting lost, being underage, and not having mastered the accent. Slightly uptown in manner if not geography is Cindy (Kate Hudson), a naive blond stumblebum with googly eyes and a smile like a sunrise, hesitating on the curb in a ridiculous pink coat while the cabdriver exhorts her to seize her destiny. Her destiny is pasty-faced Jack (Jay Mohr), a basically decent serial seducer with whom she has astonished herself by accepting a one-night stand the night before. Her indecision drives him mad, and her clumsiness brings out both his exasperation and his gentleness as they attempt to have a normal date.

The premise of intersecting shaggy-dog love stories played out by a bevy of hot young faces is all the rage, but to Garcia’s credit, 200 Cigarettes never feels tired or received. She packs the scenery with loads of wit and action, and teases out great turns from her actors. Despite Rudd’s chronologically objectionable sideburns (and the use of the term “ho”), his performance is marvelous—he exhibits a hilarious neck twitch when anguished—and his chemistry with Love is undeniable. Casey Affleck’s turn as the spike-haired Jersey boy is splendid, as is Ben Affleck’s almost wordless bartender. But the real find is Hudson, not unsurprisingly Goldie Hawn’s daughter, who twinkles and hesitates and effortlessly destroys everything she touches in a madcap performance as sweet as it is dignified. Garcia works genuine magic by the end, when the partygoers converge on Monica’s apartment, their love tussles behind them and the future ahead, as Elvis Costello sings “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”

The predictable stuff just whizzes by. Sadly, much of the good stuff does, too. Garcia shoots long conversations in profile two-shots (Mohr may want to talk to his agent about a no-profile proviso in his contract) and can’t edit or control continuity to save her life. If the characters’ eventual connection to one party is supposed to be a surprise, Garcia has a lousy way of keeping the secret. And a long coda meticulously explaining who ended up with whom and what that means for the morning—and year—to come spoils the magnificent ending already in place.

Still, there’s an alchemy at work that turns much of this screen lead into gold. The tawdry charms of the scruffy, style-obsessed East Village, with its glitz and trash and early-’80s naiveté, covers all of the love-starved characters in an obfuscating romantic glitter that rewards them for their yearning. In light of the messes that the more sophisticated characters make of their own romances, Cindy in her stupid pink coat with the dog-shit smear on the back becomes noble and beautiful, a symbol of spunky, tenderhearted optimism.

It is my contention that life throws plenty of ugliness and evil our way; there is no need to seek it out. Actively pursuing ugliness and evil destroys the soul, adding to the already unavoidable pool of unpleasantness. With 8mm, Joel Schumacher rubs our faces in nasty, exploits women and children, revels in artified butchery, and slavers over the lurid appeal of showing human nature at its worst, all by way of taking a self-righteous and utterly phony stance against violence and pornography. The film is pornographic itself, in the derogatory sense of the word—it ensures that the audience gets vicarious sick jollies so that we’ll be juicily entertained while deploring everything on the screen. 8mm is pointless and rotten. It’s also a bad movie—the screening audience was in hysterics over much of the dead-serious dialogue and Schumacher’s inability to properly light his sets—and no one needs sad crap like this in his life.CP