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Aslice of trendy, drug-addled, polymorphous, lower-Manhattan dance-club life—if you call that living—Party Girl is the over-21, wanna-be-satirical chaser to Kids. Where Kids does a credible simulation of the scandalous, however, Girl is tiresome, flat, and almost mirthless. In fact, Kids is probably the funnier of the two.
Mary (Parker Posey, a high-school dominatrix in Dazed and Confused) is the title character; she doesn’t just attend parties, she throws them. In the opening scene, Mary gets busted for “illegal operation of a social club” to the tune of Wolfgang Press’ lugubrious version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” She enlists her godmother Judy (Sasha von Scherler, the mother of director/co-writer Daisy von Scherler Mayer) to bail her out, but that leaves her further in debt. Mary finally decides she must get an actual job, and turns again to Judy, a librarian, who reluctantly hires her as a clerk.
Mary, of course, has a hard time keeping her mind on filing books. She’s more concerned with paying her rent; dumping her boyfriend Nigel (Liev Schreiber); getting a DJ gig for her roommate Leo (Guillermo Diaz); finding the guy with whom her friend Derrick (Anthony DeSando) had brief but cosmic sexual congress; and wooing sidewalk falafel vendor Mustafa (Omar Townsend). The hunky Mustafa returns Mary’s interest, even though the earnest immigrant’s aspirations have nothing to do with Manhattan’s party-girl whirl.
Mary’s flightiness turns out to be her strength—or at least von Scherler Mayer’s best excuse for her lead character’s sudden and unfathomable changes of heart and behavior. After Mustafa tells Mary about Sisy phus, she mutates overnight into a philosopher and bibliophile. Soon she’s thinking about pursuing library work as her life’s true calling.
In the words of Clueless, the glossy Hollywood flick that trumps this dingy Manhattan one in every possible way: “As if.” Girl provides a credibly multiculti representation of Mary’s south-of-Houston terrain, and Posey herself is an agreeable enough screen presence. Von Scherler Mayer’s direction isn’t bad either, if a little too indebted to MTV for its on-the-beat quick cuts. But the cloddish script (co-written by Harry Birckmayer) is a half-baked mush of labored whimsicality, chic references, queasy bursts of sincerity, and Hannah Arendt jokes. “I think I’m an existentialist. I do,” announces Mary, and that turns out to be apt. In the case of this empty hipster vessel, existence definitely precedes essence.
The upscale Grand Guignol of Ian McEwan’s novels has proved an irresistible lure to filmmakers both good and not so good, but it’s probably not the filmmakers’ fault that the results are invariably unsatisfying. Of the McEwan books adapted to the screen, I’ve only read one, The Cement Garden, but that was enough to suggest that the novelist’s work is every bit as garish as the films that result from it. The latest such effort, The Innocent, was scripted by McEwan and directed by aging journeyman John Schlesinger, so the odds that the director’s sensibility overpowered the novel’s are slim.
Set in mid-’50s Berlin—and shot at the historic UFA studios on the east side of the former divide—the film introduces its innocent, Leonard (Campbell Scott), to his brusque American boss Bob Glass (Anthony Hopkins), the love-of-his-life Maria (Isabella Rossellini), and the morally treacherous terrain at the edge of the soon-to-be-Iron Curtain. A British telephone-wiring expert, Leonard has been summoned to help an Anglo-American spy consortium tap the Russian phone lines. Leonard seems not to have been briefed on the essentials of secret operations, and despite a few rebukes from Bob, he is forever on the verge of telling the wrong person too much about his line of work.
A virgin, Leonard is easily seduced by Maria, who turns out to want nothing from him but love (and perhaps a British passport). Her estranged husband, however, wants more, which precipitates a wholly implausible crisis. Leonard is not the only one who doesn’t seem to understand the rudiments of espionage; what he gets away with here, while working on a top-secret project, is enough to fill a good-size bad novel.
Schlesinger has a bit of perfunctory fun with the tension between the Americans and Brits, a subject he addressed blandly 15 years ago in Yanks, but the film’s observations on the uneasy alliance are overshadowed by the curious cultural-exchange program at work in the casting: With the American Scott tentatively playing English, the Italian-Swedish-American Rossellini not bothering to sound German, and the Welsh Hopkins overplaying American brashness in what may be a rehearsal for Nixon, the spectacle of the shifting accents upstages even the most gruesome of McEwan’s plot twists (think Shallow Grave, but without the attitude or the style).
Though not as anti-American (or as interesting) as Zentropa, a film set in same milieu of German postwar chaos, The Innocent does involve a fairly torturous reading of the Anglo-American partnership. If Leonard is the U.K. and Bob the U.S., then the former must have lost its place in the postwar world because it was too naive and well-mannered to wade into the fray and take what it wanted—a rather fanciful notion of the country that once amassed the farthest-flung realm in recorded history. In The Innocent‘s schema, the hero loses not just the girl but the empire too. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the domestic-scale political maneuvering of such previous McEwan-derived films as The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, or even The Good Son.