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Turns out that old Mojo Nixon song was right: Elvis is everywhere. At least in the movies. Both True Romance and Kalifornia thrust young couples into a landscape of violence; both posit California at the end of a bloody rainbow; and both reference Elvis—now ensconced as the patron saint of white trash—as proof of their hip aesthetic.
“I ain’t a fag, but Elvis is prettier than most women,” reflects Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) in True Romance. Clarence, who works in a Detroit comic book store and loves martial-arts films and the King, doesn’t have much luck with girls. But when Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) dumps her popcorn in his lap at the movies, they hit it off well enough to merit a torrid sex scene a whopping seven minutes into the film. Alabama later admits to being a neophyte call girl—a birthday present from Clarence’s boss—but this is true romance: She and Clarence get married down at City Hall the following day. And, perhaps more importantly, they get matching tattoos.
But True Romance is not just a cute romantic comedy; it’s an inexhaustibly, almost unwatchably, violent cute romantic comedy. Matrimony saddles Clarence with a compulsive need to even the score with Alabama’s pimp, Drexl Spivey (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman). When Clarence arrives at Drexl’s HQ, the latter is relaxing with takeout Chinese after blowing away a roomful of people. But the carnage has only just begun: Clarence leaves him dead and flees with a suitcase of Alabama’s clothes. It’s not full of clothes, though, it’s full of cocaine. (Too bad she didn’t consider wearing the cocaine; in technicolor polyester with perpetually askew bra straps, a bad peroxide job, and that ’70s abomination, “wings,” Alabama is a fashion ignominy.) And after a pit stop with Clarence’s dad, the newlyweds head to California with a notion of selling the drugs and living ever after on their take.
Once Clarence and Alabama arrive in Hollywood, the filmmakers find plenty to make fun of. The couple’s host is fresh from an audition for T.J. Hooker; the buyer for the coke is a swinish movie producer whose latest success is a Vietnam drama called Coming Home in a Body Bag; the transaction is overseen by the producer’s toadying assistant. But like The Player, nothing True Romance has to say about the film industry is as effective an indictment of it as the film itself. After all, its soundtrack actually features Kilmer performing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The lure of Hollywood exerts itself in Kalifornia as well, though as the spelling of its title inadvertently portends, the film is doomed to get things wrong.
That’s not the only warning: Kalifornia was directed by first-timer Dominic Sena, whose background is in commercials and videos (Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” for one), and written by Tim Metcalfe, who co-scripted Revenge of the Nerds. On what turns out to be a nightmarish cross-cultural double date, bored yuppie couple Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) and Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) share a car with a pair of poor white rednecks, Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), on a road trip to California. The effete, sanctimonious Brian is writing a book about serial killers, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s found a classic example of one in his traveling companion Early.
Kalifornia‘s plausibility problems get in the way from the outset. It’s impossible to believe that Brian and Carrie—who live in a stadium-size apartment, own and maintain a ’61 Lincoln, and have gotten a book contract sight unseen—don’t have enough money for a cross-country drive or that they would let people who look like Early and Adele pump their gas, much less ride in their expensive car. Lest viewers miss the point of the couples’ juxtaposition, Brian and Carrie discuss murder over drinks as Early is dropping a rock through a car windshield from an overpass for fun and, later, for good measure, flicking a bug onto the grill down at the diner.
All of the film’s symbolism is equally overt. For instance, we find out right away that Adele loves cactuses (you can almost hear the filmmakers elbowing each other in the background, “Get it, she loves cactuses?”). And Early is some cactus —with a name like a Flannery O’Connor character and a Confederate flag on his grubby cap, he’s Hollywood’s incarnation of the Southern dirtball. He buries his landlord (who had a pit bull named Elvis) in a shallow grave and quotes from “Freebird” when he kills. At several points, he literally delivers his dialogue between belches. Childlike Adele, meanwhile, speaks in breathless floods of words like a precocious 8-year-old and plays determinedly with her yo-yo as Early steals and kills.
Both Pitt and Lewis wrest genuine performances from their two-dimensional characters, but it’s not enough to temper Kalifornia‘s lunkish moralizing and heavy-handed direction. After all, this is a film in which we know a storm is brewing because, well, a storm is brewing. Brian’s cringe-worthy narration (“I don’t know if he fascinated or repulsed me”) imparts only self-evident truths, but then the filmmakers clearly aren’t sure what to make of all this. Certainly Brian and Carrie appropriate things they have no understanding of, and they have no real experience of fear, death, and the like. Yet Kalifornia‘s korny moral is merely that we all have the capacity to kill.