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200 Cigarettes

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 26 February 1999

  Directed by Risa Bramon Garcia

Starring Ben Affleck, Christina Ricci,
Courtney Love, Casey Affleck, Janeane Girafalo,
Dave Chappelle, Jay Mohr, Kate Hudson, Paul Rudd,
Gaby Hoffman, Guillermo Diaz, and Brian McCardie

Written by Shana Larsen

Just as the 1970s begot a widespread cultural nostalgia for all things '50s, the end of the '90s has brought forth an eruption of longing for the '80s. Filmmakers have been quick to capitalize on this trend: witness Boogie Nights, The Wedding Singer and The Last Days of Disco, three recent films which used the '80s as joke fodder, to varying degrees of success.

200 Cigarettes, the latest entry in the 1980s nostalgia wave, does not follow suit. Dumb and lumbering, the film confuses its quantity of characters with quality characterization. Rather than developing any of the relationships it establishes early on, the movie simply piles more actors on the screen any time the pace lags, making it virtually impossible to keep track of everyone without creating a chart.

The story opens on New Year's Eve, 1981. The Big Apple is bustling with lonely people in search of sex partners with whom to celebrate the special night. Let's run down the list. It gets complicated, so try to pay attention:

Kevin (Paul Rudd) and Lucy (Courtney Love) are two friends in search of a good time. Kevin, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend Ellie (Janeane Girafalo), would have preferred to sit at home and mope, but Lucy convinces him to attend a New Year's party with her. It's a time to celebrate, she explains, especially as it happens to be Kevin's birthday.

Val and Stephie (Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman, respectively) are two teenagers in search of the same party, which is being hosted by Val's neurotic cousin Monica (Martha Plimpton) and Monica's friend Hillary (Catherine Kellner). But when Val loses her cousin's address, the duo is stuck wandering the streets without a destination.

Ben Affleck is a handsome bartender whose company is much desired by the aforementioned Lucy, plus two customers, Bridget (Nicole Parker) and Caitlyn (Angela Featherstone). The bartender, whose name is never given, promises to stop by the much discussed party after he gets off work that night (What kind of bar closes before midnight on New Year's Eve, anyway?).

Meanwhile, Monica thinks her party will be a disaster: apart from Hilary, only Eric (Brian McCardie), her Scottish ex-boyfriend, has stopped by. Eric doesn't want to party, however: he only wishes to bombard Monica with questions about his perceived sexual inadequacy (Bridget, his girlfriend for the past six months, dumped him earlier that evening.). But Hillary and Eric soon hit it off, leaving Monica even more depressed than before.

Jack (Jay Mohr) and Cindy (Kate Hudson) are on their second date, about to head to (you guessed it) Monica's New Year's party. Jack is walking on air after discovering that he claimed Cindy's virginity the previous evening, though she quickly grows tired of his constant queries about the event ("Why me? How was it?").

In the interim, Val and Stephie (remember them?) hook up with Tom (Casey Affleck, brother to Ben) and Dave (Guillermo Diaz), a pair of friendly punks looking for a good time. Val accommodates, although Stephie just wants to go home, and spends most of the film whining (very loudly) about this fact to anyone who'll listen.

Dave Chappelle, perhaps the funniest guest ever to appear on Comedy Central's "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," valiantly tries to anchor 200 Cigarettes. He plays a cab driver (the only one on duty in all of New York, apparently) who sees his job as an opportunity to dispense advice to his customers. He approaches life as though he were a set of Isaac Hayes lyrics: everything revolves around sex for him ("Music makes booty spin round!" he cheerfully explains to a perplexed Kevin.).

There's no plot, per se; people exist here only to be cross-referenced and indexed, not to advance a coherent storyline. I scribbled page after page of notes while watching this movie, trying to sort out the knotted web of relationships that the film drapes over us. It's not an easy task. By the time the story is over, most of the characters have been gotten jiggy with at least one of the others, even though the relationships appear doomed before they even begin. The main question asked by the film seems to be, "Who is going to leave Monica's party with whom?" I have a better one: "Who cares?"

Most of the cast looks uncomfortable. The usually flawless Christina Ricci seems unsure of how to handle the Val character, and chokes on her own Northern accent. Ben Affleck, given nothing of consequence to do, is content to stand back and look pretty, giving brother Casey the chance to upstage him. As for the rest of the cast, only Martha Plimpton, Brian McCardie and Dave Chappelle really seem to come alive, emerging as interesting people despite the screenplay's attempts to relegate them to the background. I can't blame the other cast members for their performances, though: they had almost nothing to build their roles upon. Whether this is due to the poor screenplay by Shana Larsen or simple inexperience from first-time director Risa Bramon Garcia is unclear, although it may be a combination of both.

200 Cigarettes is bursting at the seams with characters, so many that no one has the opportunity to emerge as anything more than dialogue placeholders. We don't once care about anyone here, because they've breezed past us with such rapidity that we have a hard time remembering who they were.

The film also makes poor use of its setting: why set the story in the '80s if none of the humor or drama reflects the time period? 200 Cigarettes could have been set in 1999 with zero changes to the script, apart from a throwaway gag involving Elvis Costello in the final scene. Had the date not been revealed as 1981 at the outset, I would have assumed we were watching a story set in contemporary times. Nothing about the slang, costumes or hairstyles indicates otherwise.

200 Cigarettes is an incoherent, sprawling mess. Although it does occasionally throw in a clever joke or gag, much of the "humor" stems from unflattering stereotypes (such as Cindy's constant clumsiness) or crude visuals (an unappetizing stain which appears on the dress of one of the characters, for example). Lacking all but the cheapest of payoffs, 200 Cigarettes deserves a warning from the Surgeon General's office: "This film may be hazardous to your intellect."


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