The implied full title of Very Bad Things is When Very Bad Things Happen to Good People, but good people are not conspicuous in writer-director Peter Berg’s bilious comedy. The five L.A. pals at the center of this nightmarish scenario are supposed to be varying degrees of innocent: Something just happens, and that leads to a berserk spiral of uncontrollable circumstances. The problem with this currently popular scenario (the upcoming A Simple Plan has roughly the same premise) is that it would take only one responsible act to shut down the entire spiral. Very Bad Things’ principal characters are supposed to be in the thrall of unenlightened self-interest, but actually they’re just trapped by the plot’s contrivances.
The contrivances revolve around the imminent nuptials of Kyle (Jon Favreau) and Laura (Cameron Diaz). In celebration of the imminent event, Kyle’s creepy realtor friend Robert (Christian Slater) has organized a bachelor-party excursion to Vegas. Along for the ride are bickering brothers Michael (Jeremy Piven) and Adam (Daniel Stern), and quiet nonentity Charles (Leland Orser). Robert has hired stripper-hooker Tina (Carla Scott) to dance at the cocaine-fueled hotel-room bash, and after the show Michael takes Tina into the bathroom for sex. In the throes of coital exhilaration, Michael impales Tina on a towel racksomebody call the Consumer Product Safety Commissionand kills her. Before the guys are through, there’s as much blood splattering the hotel bathroom as there iswhat a coincidencepooling around the Tim Roth character in Reservoir Dogs.
The rest of this grimly predictable farce tracks the five guys’ attempt to dispose of Michael’s victim and keep the story of their Vegas misadventure to themselves. His conscience stirred by the slaying, Adam rediscovers his Judaism and threatens to tell his suspicious wife, Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn), what happened. Adam’s moral awakening ignites his long-simmering sibling rivalry with Michael, while encouraging Robert’s Machiavellian instincts, already bolstered by his membership in one of those self-help cults that are apparently still popular in California.
The final joke is that when Laura eventually discovers what’s happened it turns out thatstop me if you’ve heard this one beforethe female is deadlier than the male. The bride’s only concern is that the possible arrest of the groom and his best man might interfere with the wedding she’s been so obsessively planning. The prospect of forfeiting her down payment to the caterers is enough to make her Robert’s match in sheer ruthlessness. Womencan’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em (unless they’re hookers, of course).
Very Bad Things has a relentlessness that is some sort of accomplishment for Berg, who also appears on (and occasionally scripts) Chicago Hope. This parade of bad behavior fails to muster any other significant virtues, however. The issues it raises are more logistical than ethical, and the plot developments are strictly matters of mechanics. Besides, it’s hard to credit the moral downfall of characters who are all revealed, sooner or later, to be creeps to begin with.
Slater, who served as an executive producer, may have fooled himself into thinking he had another Heathers here, while Favreau’s role in Swingers suggests he has a weakness for dreary male-bonding sagas. The real tipoff to Slater’s intent, though, is the presence of Diaz, an actress with a fatal attraction for mean-spirited comedies. That propensity paid off handsomely for her with There’s Something About Marywhich was sweet as well as sourbut Very Bad Things is only for those who enjoyed Diaz in Feeling Minnesota and A Life Less Ordinary.
Like Very Bad Things, the meaninglessly titled Home Fries is set into motion by a killing. TV veteran and first-time feature director Dean Parisot’s movie has a good guy, though, and even a good girl. Still, the misogyny of Vince Gilligan’s script rivals that of Berg’s.
Brothers Dorian (Luke Wilson) and Angus (Jake Busey), Army National Guard reservists with apparently unlimited access to military helicopters, are on a mission from their vengeful mom (Catherine O’Hara). She wants their adulterous stepdad, Henry, dead, and the pitiless Angus (this movie’s counterpart of Slater’s Robert) has devised a perfect murder: He and his brother will track Henry in a helicopter, shoot at him with blanks, and trigger a fatal heart attack. (Angus tells Dorian they’re just going to scare the old man.) The plan unfolds just the way Angus intends, while on the soundtrack Chris Isaak moans that somebody “did a bad, bad thing.”
Aside from Dorian’s remorse, there’s but one complication: The pilots pick up chatter from a nearby burger joint on their radio, causing Angus to fear that someone there might have heard something incriminating. To investigate his suspicions, Angus insists that Dorian take a job at the Burger-Matic, where he meets cute, guileless, pregnant Sally (Drew Barrymore). Sally is, of course, Henry’s lover, whose identity remains a mystery to the brothers’ vengeful mom, and Dorian is soon auditioning for the role of father to his dead stepfather’s child. How cute can this get? Dorian’s first date with Sally is a Lamaze class, where the instructor instructs them to gaze into each other’s eyes and practice “open-vagina” exercises.
Eventually, of course, Angus discovers Sally’s connection to Henry, and the boys’ mom discreetly decrees her death. Dorian refuses to cooperate, but his relationship with Sally is threatened when she finally learns that he’s her ex-lover’s stepson. In what is apparently meant to be a madcap finale, Angus commandeers another copter while Dorian tries to protect Sally, who goes into labor.
It’s good to see SCTV mainstay O’Hara working, but despite her best efforts, this part is as negligible as most of her Hollywood roles. Barrymore again tries to summon a performance that matches her baby-doll face, Wilson reprises the gullibility of his Bottle Rocket bit, and Busey supports the Kiefer Sutherland theory of actors’ generational devolution. Incredible as it may seem, Shelley Duvall is also in here somewhere.
Home Fries bears a 1997 copyright, and its script is moldier than that: Gilligan wrote it a decade ago, before he became an X-Files producer. (Perhaps he was attracted by the helicopters.) Set in a place the filmmakers describe as “Anywhere U.S.A.” (but which is clearly the South), the movie tries to render adorable the kind of people who would never get past the security guards at the offices of co-producers Barry Levinson or Lawrence Kasdan. Where Very Bad Things wants you to care about irredeemable louts, Home Fries expects you to cozy up with unbearable saps.CP