Thursday, February 19, 2009
Spun is just about the unlikeliest movie you'd expect to be saved by its actors, but it's easier to understand why when you look at the list of names attached. To aid writer-director Jonas Åkerlund in his foray into the altered states of drug usage, he amassed a hell of a cast, all of whom play their parts with admirable subtlety and understatement, which seems strange when you view the film as a whole.
Where Trainspotting and Requiem For A Dream dealt mainly with heroin, Spun attempts to capture the world of the meth addict, the poor white trash who don't have the money for a "luxury" like smack and settle for cheaper highs. Ross (Jason Schwartzman) stands in the center of this kinetic story; he buys his stuff from Spider Mike (John Leguizamo), who always argues with his girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). Ross meets another addict, Niki (Brittany Murphy), the girlfriend of "The Cook" (Mickey Rourke), who runs the meth lab that supplies Spider Mike. This small group of acquaintances moves fast enough to capture all the actions of an Altmanesque ensemble cast, and they do so with aplomb.
Over the course of a day, Ross goes all over town, intersecting with the characters as they slip in and out of manic states and even crazier situations. He picks up a stripper in order to perform naughty activities, then leaves her bound and gagged on his bed when Cook calls up asking for rides. The only reason I can think for why he does this is that he's so zonked out that it must make sense to him, as there's nothing overly nefarious to his actions. Meanwhile, in one of the movie's funnier moments, cops raid the home of user Frisbee and his mother, believing them to be the ones with the meth lab. What makes it so funny is that a Cops-style camera crew comes in with them...as the mother is watching their program.
Ross' trips with The Cook are particularly illuminating, if for no other reason than they allow Mickey Rourke to pave the way for his '00s comeback. The Cook is a supporting character, but he walks away with the entire film. Spun seeks to capture the despair in the lives of all this poor white trash, and The Cook is the only one out of all of them who truly understands the pain that they all seek to forget, and manages to balance the dark comedy of the film (his rant on the virtues of pornography gets the biggest laughs of the whole thing) with flashes of masked pain.
My main problem with the film, though, is that the director shifts so much attention off the actors and onto the myriad of edits and trickery of the camera. Not so much building off of the kinetic styles of Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting as stealing them outright, Åkerlund retreads over a great deal of cinematic innovation and turns it into a black comedy, albeit not half as dark as Danny Boyle's classic. Supposedly the film set a Guinness World record for the most number of edits in a film (over 5,000); I don't know if that record stands, but either way the sheer number of repetitive tricks gets old fast and the director is just lucky he scored a cast that could keep things moving.
The thing about drug movies, even the comedies, is that they tend to have a viewpoint. Stoner movies place marijuana on a pedestal, while Boyle and Darren Aronofsky used graphic imagery and inventive techniques to thrust us into the nightmare of the average user. Then there's Spun, who stands in the middle, unsure in which direction to move. It certainly doesn't endorse drugs like all the pot movies, but it also plays the comedy too lightly to really warn people off meth. The worst that happens to these kids is that they look strung out and have bad teeth. We don't see real consequences until the end, and that is too sensationalized to leave an impact. I still recommend the film on the basis of its acting (especially Schwartzman and Rourke), but don't expect a very intelligent document of a very real problem in America.