Pop culture apocalypse

The character Simon Geist (Dan Zukovic) is a black-haired, dead-eyed intellectual who never smiles and never condescends when he talks: He'd never even think of kneeling to address you on your level.

The actor Dan Zukovic is a playwright whose screenplay for his debut feature The Last Big Thing doesn't condescend to his audiences, either. Zukovic makes that most daring of leaps: He writes dialogue and situations that please him and assumes somewhere an audience shares his grievances--namely, impatience with the ascent of pop-culture trivia as the shared American culture and with those self-styled pundits who constantly bitch about that ascent.

Last but not least, the director Dan Zukovic has made award-winning short films that haven't invested his first full-length movie with technical confidence. The camera setups are static, and there are half-hearted attempts at a verite feel that would surely catch the ire of the ever-watchful Simon, a merciless critic in search of a misanthropic cult. Zukovic may have maxed out his plastic getting this one made, but we suspect his credit limit is low. For a film about the steel and concrete jungle that is Los Angeles, the camera pretty much stays inside the hut.

In short, actor-writer-director Dan Zukovic may not be what you'd call a triple threat with his dark comedy The Last Big Thing. Yet he'll make you chuckle with the monotonous venom of his performance and occasionally floor you with the overarching vision of a script that informs us thus: Media abhors a vacuum even more than nature, so no individual voice or perspective or identity can stick its head out of the ground without being sucked and absorbed by the massive digestive tract of American celebrity. And what comes out the other end is, of course, just more fuel for the flatulence.

If Peter Weir's The Truman Show depicted a man trapped inside a fame he doesn't recognize, The Last Big Thing shows us a guy who's trapped inside his own hatred for a fame he can't escape. The notoriety is all other people's, of course--models, rock stars, hunky TV actors--but Simon Geist can't help but take it personally. That's partly because he lives just outside of Los Angeles and is constantly confronted with the flotsam and jetsam of the entertainment industry, and partly because Simon carries inside himself an "agenda," which he sometimes obliquely refers to but never quite articulates until the very end. The close of the decade, the century, and the millennium draws near, the messianic complex-plagued Simon tells us, and somehow the popular media are homogenizing and co-opting all forms of expression toward some blurry, hostile meltdown of music video and '70s TV show self-references. Simon fashions himself the savior in this inevitable apocalypse.

Like all true saviors, he has at least one faithful disciple--the hopelessly unhappy daughter of a rich man who finances her aimlessness into adulthood, a searching young woman named Darla (Susan Heimbinder). Darla moves into a house (mortgage payments supplied by her father) with Simon, and the pair makes regular excursions into Los Angeles, where they rebel by attending mainstream Hollywood comedies, then refuse to laugh, and heckling hot young stand-up comics who use TV shows as material with grating, humorless laughter that sounds more like an attack of crows ("Caa! Caa! Caa!"). Darla begins to schedule interviews for him with young performers eager for publicity.

But these are the small barrels in an arsenal that Darla deploys with devotion, if not full comprehension. Simon's stealth weapon is a phony magazine called The Next Big Thing, a cover story to entice these rising stars with the promise of, well, a cover story. Simon insists the bogus interviews are his way of assessing the whole sorry state of "the most evil city of the past thousand years," but we see immediately that they're just opportunities to insult some highly insultable individuals. He mercilessly quizzes one young prime-time TV actor (Mark Ruffalo) whose every other word is "great" with poker-faced requests to explain how he feels about being named "nighttime TV's hottest hunk." As Darla begins to write her own 'zine dedicated to her frustration with and admiration for Simon, he falls into an infatuation with a music video model (Pamela Dickerson) who's apparently two steps ahead of him. We can see that the ending is not going to be pretty, but to the credit of Zukovic's controlled, propulsive script, a few genuine surprises pop up along the road to ruin.

If you're like me, you've pretty much had it up to here with movies about how shallow Americans are obsessed with and easily manipulated by the media elite. It's impossible to watch a film like Wag the Dog without suspecting that this video oligarchy enjoys a hearty in-crowd laugh at the same time they receive a hard little thrill from seeing their power confirmed through satire. The pleasure of an anklebiter like The Last Big Thing is how it targets self-righteous, reflexive pop-culture loathing as tenaciously as pop culture itself. Simon Geist is a theatrically ridiculous figure: He may usually be the smartest person in the room, but he's still not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

The Last Big Thing.
Written and directed by Dan Zukovic. Starring Zukovic, Susan Heimbinder, Mark Ruffalo, Pamela Dickerson. Opens Friday for one weekend only at the Inwood Theatre.

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