Slackers
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 1 February 2002

Yecccch

Some movies just don't need to be made. And some movies work extra hard to educe comments just like that one, making the extra effort to gross you out, to annoy, alarm, or titillate you. Dewey Nicks' feature debut, Slackers is one of those hardworking movies. Consider the title's clunk-on-the-head suggests the overtime someone put in to come up with an irritatingly unimaginative retread concept. 

Written by David H. Steinberg, Slackers begins with a brief rundown of its three protagonists' profound lack of goals and aspirations. Dave (Devon Sawa), Jeff (Michael C. Maronna), and Sam (Jason Segel) have reached senior year at whatever college they're attending, without really passing a course. They enroll in large lecture courses, never show up for class, then finagle ingenious cheats for the final exams. They think they are very clever.

An example of this strategy opens the film. Dave narrates: it's 48 days before graduation, so they're into their homestretch (life after graduation isn't really a concept here; such is the standard limitation of farting-college-boy movies). Their mission: to steal official blue books off a delivery truck, in order to scam entrance into an exam, in order to steal questions that one of the trio will then use to pass said exam, after faking a bicycle accident and subsequent broken leg. The scheme involves videotaping a girl's cheerleading or perhaps track squad as they go jogging (granting various close-up jiggle shots that, oddly, seem more geared for your delectation than as a means to develop characters Dave, Jeff or Sam: go figure), and the to-be-late-exam-taker's cockamamie antics on a bike. All this effort seems extreme. Heck, maybe it would be easier just to go to class once in a while.

The "crucial" part of this plot involves Dave's appearance at the final for a class he didn't take, but whose questions he needs to steal, in order for Jeff-or-Sam (doesn't really matter which one) to have answers ready for the same makeup exam the next day. The real point (as opposed to all the fake ones listed above) is that Dave meets a girl who is actually taking the exam, the fabulous Angela (James King), and while he's flirting with her, he's spotted by another exam-taker, the Lord of Losers who calls himself Cool Ethan (Jason Schwartzman). And so... Cool Ethan threatens to bust the cheaters unless they get him hooked up with Angela.

This hooking up will never happen, of course, because Dave and Angela take mutual shines to one another, for no good reason except that they are the stars of the movie. But in order to make the "feature film" running time, Dave-Sam-Jeff make a series of efforts to get "info" on Angela, in order to feed it to Ethan, so he can look good to her. For an ordinary human, at least in the realm of Dave-Sam-Jeff, this approach works. But for Ethan, showing up at the hospital or homeless shelter where Angela volunteers just makes him look more crushingly repulsive (if this can be imagined, given that you learn he keeps a "shrine" to Angela in his dorm room and jerks off with a doll he's made out of strands of her hair that she's left at her chair in class).

You might be appalled, for instance, when you see Ethan at the hospital, enticed by one of Angela's elderly patients (a freakishly made-up Mamie Van Doren) to suck on her breast. When Angela walks in on this scene, you'd imagine that would be a last straw. But no, she's so perfectly pretty and sweet (and dense) that she only rolls her eyes and maybe wonders a bit, though it's hard to tell exactly what she's thinking. But no matter. Girls in Slackers do not have brains or roles; they serve one function, to enhance your enjoyment of the boys' shenanigans. And so, Angela's mother (Leigh Taylor Young) blows Dave when he comes to visit (he endures the act, then falls for Angela and feels guilty until he learns this mother is actually a stepmother: thank god! He can pursue the girl of his dreams with legitimate passion, or something like that). And Angela's roommate Rianna (That '70s Show's Laura Prepon) is a nympho who masturbates, a lot: oh, the hilarity. 

While they do go through some ups and downs (one of these downs entails Ethan with a video camera), you know that Dave and Angela will be together in the end. You may wonder -- as you're waiting for the film to be over -- why the filmmakers even bothered to include a romantic subplot. Perhaps this gave Slackers enough "heart" (of the Bubble Boy sort) to enable young up-and-comers like Sawa and King to take the roles, so they can rationalize by pointing to their characters' "motivations." "I really like this girl," says King in the press notes. "She has a huge heart and wants to believe the best in people... I know what it's like to be her age and fall in love and be unsure of your emotions." Oh, that's what those were.

Still, you might feel some sympathy for King, and Sawa as well. She was very beautiful as Kate Beckinsale's fellow nurse in Pearl Harbor, and because her role was so slim, she didn't have to spend too much time making excuses for that film's overbearing self-love. Sawa is also still in that superficial career "stage," tending to rest on his familiar insouciant-boy affect. Maybe he's looking to make his earlier career respectable: the not-so-bad slasher flicks Final Destination and Idle Hands look like masterpieces compared to Slackers. Or maybe he's looking to be the next Ashton Kutcher, because there surely aren't enough of them already.

The most curious career choice here would have to be Schwartzman's. Not long ago he was the flavor of the Geek Chic month (or year), for his notable work in Wes Anderson's Rushmore. His Ethan is more desperate and desperate, and certainly less charming than Max J. Fisher, whose admittedly troubling obsession with his teacher was evoked in emotional details and silliness rather than the bludgeoning slapstick in Slackers. Ethan exhibits a meanness that should actually be comprehensible: he's obviously been abused by classmates throughout his life, so that his desire to wield his sudden sense of power over these numb-nuts makes sense. But it's hard to cozy up to a character as flat-out repulsive as Cool Ethan. Perhaps this is the reason to take the part, to have the chance to play a character so awful that viewers will be convulsing with spasms of horror-struck laughter. You know, it's a stretch.

Ethan's brutality and cunning are indeed remarkable. And so what if they're unoriginal? It's fairly clear that the aim of this genre (whatever you want to call it) isn't to break new, uh, ground, as much as it is to run over -- and over and over -- the same turf, so viewers know exactly when to laugh and go "Yeeech!" and poke their buddies in their arms. Still, the redundancy eventually does undo what is most keen in this formula, and that is to allow you to see stereotypes in ways that might not have occurred to you before. If all you're seeing is a slightly overheated version of the har-har sex-jokes already made lite in Undeclared or That '70s Show or battered to a pulp in Dude, Where's My Car? and American Pie 2, well, you might as well find another genre to hit up for spare ideas. 

Recently (like, since he's been asked to pitch Slackers, about which there is clearly very little to say), Schwartzman has been talking to interviewers about going on the road with his band, Phantom Planet. He's the drummer, and it sounds like a decent, if predictable, gig. According to a "band journal" he wrote for Details, he gets to meet chicks, sleep while sitting up in the van, wake up stiff, and go on to hit the skins another day. You know, like, awesome. Presumably, a gig like Slackers helps pay for gas.

Directed by:
Dewey Nicks

Starring:
Devon Sawa
Jason Schwartzman
James King
Jason Segel
Michael C. Maronna
Laura Repon

Written by:
David H. Steinberg

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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