Film Reviews

Good vibrations

Ticket buyers should know there is a controversial presumption behind Trainspotting, the remarkable new feature by director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge--that drugs are fun. Specifically, heroin. The synthetic morphine substitute that keeps creeping back into '90s headlines--most recently, with the overdose death of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Danny Melvoin and the possession charge against actor Robert Downey Jr.--can provide a helluva good time, they say.

"The problem," insists British filmmaker Boyle, his faded brown hair spiky atop a diminutive frame, "is that nobody who tries heroin is prepared for what it does to them--at least, if they listen to the 'bogeyman' description passed out by anti-drug messengers. They expect something horrible, and when the result is quite lovely, they wonder, 'Why not try it again?' Then a fun time becomes a habit."

That's the rub, insist Boyle and Scottish screen partner Hodge, who is a doctor about to re-enter practice at an English hospital. Since no Western government seems prepared to address the root problems of crime, poverty, and addiction, Boyle and Hodge insist, the use of heroin and other drugs offer their own encouragement, quite separate from anything a movie or music video can induce. People need to escape.

A similar impulse drives the international motion-picture industry, which might explain why Trainspotting has become one of the highest-grossing pictures in U.K. history even while it offers a brazenly nonjudgmental view of a junkie's day-to-day life. The film's chief source of controversy is its cheeky depiction of desperate addiction. The audience is offered a gleeful, fast-edit explanation of heroin's seductiveness, then pretty much left to finger its own culprits.

"The answer's in here," the tiny Hodge declares, poking his scrawny chest with a forefinger. "It's with the disappointment of people about their circumstances. That's a place the politicians are frightened to go. And it is a frightening, complicated place."

In the same breath, both men admit they've known individuals whose appetite for drugs defies simple sociopolitical explanation. Boyle characterizes them as "people whose imaginations are too big for their own good." Trainspotting overflows with such stubborn refugees from reality, and uncovers a Monty Pythonish laugh-potential in their sordid exploits. The film's narrator, Mark Renton (portrayed with tender conviction by Ewan MacGregor), stumbles through the action like an angel with a broken wing, struggling to maintain friendships and his habit while he flirts with a beautiful, obstinate prep-school student named Diane (Kelly MacDonald) who's fascinated with "the lifestyle." In keeping with the film's one-two punch of scabrous honesty and dizzying romanticism, the relationship is thrilling...but not nearly enough to bring Renton down from the horse.

First and foremost, however, Boyle and Hodge wanted to make a movie about economic outsiders, people whose triumphs and tragedies would happen without the "middle-class need" for pretense that marks so many polite celluloid discussions of dependency. The film's title refers to a mindless diversion that has obsessed a generation of unemployed U.K. males--hanging around the tracks to record the serial numbers of trains because, well, there's nothing better to do. A group of white-hot young Scottish actors was gathered to lie about with "careless brio" for Boyle's camera.

"We sort of dispensed with rehearsals," Boyle confesses, "since we knew the actors we hired were good. They didn't need to go through theatrical demonstrations for us. Instead, we gathered everyone together for a couple weeks and showed them [mostly American] movies about outsiders--The Hustler with Paul Newman, A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark."

Trainspotting boasts a braggart's blend of visual touches from all those flicks. Perhaps more than any of them, however, the movie tests audience expectations with its roller-coaster display of slapstick highs and gruesome lows. The film's seismic mood shifts--the most faithful remnant of Irvine Welsh's international best seller from 1993--are what made it so difficult to sell, although not in the way Boyle and Hodge imagined.

"We turned down bigger budgets," says Boyle, "because the companies that offered them wanted to change certain fundamental elements in the story, like the toilet-diving scene [a Hodge creation] and the baby's death [the moral center of the story]. The smallest budget we could work with would keep us happy and disappoint as few people as possible."

The backlash against Trainspotting has been relatively mild in the United Kingdom, but the media hype that's preceded the American debut of the film positions it as a cultural phenomenon to be targeted by election-year conservatives. Are the filmmakers nervous?

"It seems that the anti-drug messages in America have been delivered to make the messengers feel better about themselves," John Hodge says. "But they don't really address why a small percentage of the population become heroin addicts, and a lot more people are alcoholics. We wanted to make an irresponsible movie--one that entertains with the same power it disturbs. I hope we succeeded.

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Jimmy Fowler