As bad as it gets

Peter Berg's sour Very Bad Things earns a one-way ticket to filmic Palookaville

In the rancid nightmare farce called Very Bad Things, Peter Berg, in his movie writing-directing debut, creates characters that you immediately want to see killed off. From the title to the ads to the Web site (which features a Vegas stripper who will dance for you), Very Bad Things has been positioned as an edgy independent feature. But Berg, a star and sometime writer of the CBS doctor series Chicago Hope, has gone about his business as if he were designing the TV pilot from hell, about men behaving not just badly but atrociously. They announce their prefab quirks and weaknesses in seconds; to conjure an iota of surprise, all Berg can do is plunge them deeper into Hades.

The movie depicts what happens when a Vegas bachelor party goes wrong. Way wrong. But the wingding is wretched from the outset. The suburban-L.A. friends who make up this desperate bash are a depressed mechanic (Leland Orser), an obnoxious real estate salesman (Christian Slater), and a trio of office jerks--Daniel Stern and Jeremy Piven as terminally tense brothers, and Jon Favreau as the spineless groom-to-be. They set down their bags and instantly zone out on drugs and alcohol, while testosterone-drenched images flash on their suite's big-screen TV, and upbeat rock blares from what sound like wall-to-wall speakers. Like Star Trek's Borg Collective, the Berg Collective assimilates or consumes everything in its path. Its members transform sofas into trampolines and crush glass as if it were ice. When approaching the Berg, it's best to follow Captain Picard's advice to Data about approaching the Borg: "I suggest you deactivate your emotion chip now."

In interviews, the writer-director has confessed that he's seen happily married guys who have sex only every three months go "animal" at times like these. Let's consider the vast spectrum of animality. A semitough football party can be amiably animal. The party that ignited the U.S. Navy's Tailhook scandal was disgustingly animal. This Very Bad Things bachelor celebration is obscenely yet formulaically animal. It primes the audience to expect the worst--and murders any possible suspense.

The moment a sinuous stripper appears like a leftover vision from Showgirls, you know you shouldn't grow too fond of her. When Piven pays for additional services and, in a pathetic imitation of aggressive sex, starts smashing her around the palatial Vegas bathroom, you don't have long to wait for a catastrophe. Piven inadvertently--and fatally--slams the back of her head into a bathrobe hook.

The bulk of the movie covers the increasingly foul and bloody coverup. The office jerks panic at their moral ring-around-the-white-collar. The mechanic grows more and more morose. The real estate agent leads them further down the road of homicide and denial, starting with his first piece of advice when faced with the dead body: "Strip away the morality, strip away the ethics, and we're left with a 105-pound problem--105 pounds that has to be moved from Point A to Point B." For all the queasiness of the ensuing corpse-carving and of several additional slaughters, there's no shock to these guys' dehumanization--the one-note writing has already dehumanized them. Each of them is at least 170 pounds, and all the script does is move this load from Point A to Point B.

When the group returns home, groom-to-be Favreau handles the tumult relatively well. That's because he's deathly afraid of letting down his bride-to-be. Although she looks like the Cameron Diaz we've come to know and love--after all, she's played by Cameron Diaz--she acts like an uptight debutante in '30s comedies (the kind Cary Grant would jilt for Katharine Hepburn). Because Stern has gotten used to negotiating life with a supercompetent, eagle-eyed wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn), he cracks under the pressure of keeping his dirty secrets. His disintegration drives his kid brother Piven even crazier.

We're supposed to be simultaneously jolted and amused at how the "normal" ticks of everyday middle-class existence--sibling rivalry, henpecked householdry--intrude on these grisly circumstances. For example, at a makeshift desert grave, Piven says Stern is a failure at male bonding. (The rest of them don't have that problem: In a jarring revelation of latent homoeroticism, Slater kisses Favreau full on the mouth.)

But the strategy fails ignobly, because their identifying human characteristics are pitifully generic. And when Berg strains to be colorful, he's merely gross--he has the gang needle Stern about being "such a Jew" (i.e., cheap). At best we get fear and self-loathing in Las Vegas. Stern grumbles that they can't bury body parts from different bodies in a single grave because it's against Jewish law. Philip Roth, Berg isn't; he isn't even late Woody Allen. As the ultimate graceless grace note, the filmmaker saddles Stern with a helmeted, limping son who's described as a walking telethon. A writer-director coming up with this kind of calculated outrage is akin to a nightclub comic who descends to heckling the audience.

The straight men (Favreau, Orser) act with sullen intensity; the fall guys (Stern, Piven) practice pent-up hysteria; the would-be Satan, Slater, does a smoothed-out variation on the Jack Nicholson sneer-and-insinuation routine he tried out years ago in Heathers. Whether they keep their traps shut or yammer away, they're woefully over-the-top. Berg indulges and spoils his cast; presumably he thinks that the fuller they feel and the more they emote, the truer and funnier they get. Too bad they're just pumping up the volume.

Even in our jaded times, it's possible to make a cautionary tale that retains its humanity despite a horrendous body count: Sam Raimi's forthcoming A Simple Plan does so, exquisitely. But Very Bad Things deserves a place in the vault of shame next to the collected works of Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute. It poses as an unblinkered look at the hangups and hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. In reality it's an empty, narcissistic tantrum.

--Michael Sragow

Very Bad Things.
Directed and written by Peter Berg. Starring Jon Favreau, Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Stern, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Jeremy Piven, and Leland Orser.

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