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Shock comedy has its own special, demonic way of goosing the audience. You’re shown something incredibly depraved, debauched, horrible, or scary. A taboo has been smashed. You’re jolted, grossed out, even offended. And yet you laugh. Why? You laugh, of course, at the sheer immorality of what you’re watching — in a strange way, at the very fact that you’re watching it. The forbidden has been laid bare, and — presto! — it has become…entertainment.

A lot of people probably won’t be laughing at one of the wilder releases of the holiday season, the gleefully scandalous sick-joke thriller Very Bad Things. (How many days was that until Christmas, again?) Even those who feasted upon the naughty bonbons of There’s Something About Mary may find themselves running up the aisles this time — or, more likely, skipping the multiplex altogether. It’s doubtful, though, that many will succeed in hiding from the spirit of unhinged, banzai outrageousness that movies like this have begun to shove into mainstream view. Brace yourself, everyone, for the new pop culture — for America Extreme.

Very Bad Things, the tale of a bachelor party gone spectacularly wrong, is like Diner directed by Oliver Stone from a script by Charles Manson. Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau), a long-faced Los Angeles yuppie, is all set to marry Laura (Cameron Diaz), a silky, domineering princess who sees her imminent wedding not as a romantic fulfillment but as a victory in the great American popularity-consumerist sweepstakes. Kyle, along with four of his old buddies, heads to Las Vegas for one glorious last blast of ”freedom” — i.e., a drug-drenched party-all-night bacchanal, culminating, naturally, in the arrival of a hardbodied stripper/prostitute. When Kyle declines to sleep with her, Michael (Jeremy Piven), high on excess, carries her off to the bathroom for a round of frenzied wall-banging sex. A little too frenzied: As their encounter reaches its climax, he realizes that he has accidentally impaled her on a towel hanger.

Should they call the cops? Boyd (Christian Slater), a real estate salesman who speaks in New Age power-marketing slogans, has a less risky — but far grislier — plan: They’ll remove her body and bury it in the Nevada desert. If only it were that easy. Without revealing too much, let me simply describe the moment when I gave in to Very Bad Things. It was during an overhead shot of the bathroom — lots of blood, a mop, a chain saw. (The scrub-the-car episode of Pulp Fiction now seemed a cozy bedtime story.) I was utterly appalled. Then, suddenly, I tuned in to the soundtrack, a laid-back groove with the lyrics ”I like to party!” The irony, the sheer cheek of it, was too much. In an instant, revulsion dissolved into laughter.

Very Bad Things goes way past outrageous — it’s blasphemous. Yet this Grand Guignol nightmare is packed with rude and clever twists, and it delves, with surprising force, into the hypocritical postures of corporate-era male bonding. In L.A., Kyle and his pals feel as if they’ve been to hell and back, but hell isn’t about to let them escape. One by one, they succumb to guilt and fear, and there’s a gruesome poetic justice to the nearly karmic way in which they’re undermined by their own sins.

Very Bad Things is the first feature written and directed by Peter Berg, a veteran actor who has been a regular on Chicago Hope, and he has brought off a satanically funny fusion of satire and fever dream. The flowers of evil all lead back to Laura, played by Cameron Diaz with a pitch-perfect manipulative purr. She represents the middle-class obsession with gold-plated nuptial perfection that, according to the film, begets the reactionary decadence of bachelor parties in the first place. The actors, who truly look like desperate, aging suburban frat boys, are all superb. Jon Favreau proves that his puppyish urgency in Swingers was no fluke, and I greatly enjoyed the confessional squirmings of Daniel Stern, the family man as walking anxiety attack, and the sublime nonchalance of Christian Slater, who does the finest acting of his career as the delectably heartless Boyd, the sort of guy who can bury a pile of body parts, light up a cigarette, and then say, with just a touch of wistful macho, ”It was the smart play.”

For all its bitch-slap violence, salacious overkill, and brazen fakery, the ingenious secret of The Jerry Springer Show is the way it taps the naughtiest corners of our imagination, forcing us to create, in our heads, the exuberantly squalid scenarios describ-ed by the guests. The canny, shameless Ringmaster presents the logical fulfillment of the audience’s fantasies: It goes ”behind the scenes” to dramatize a trailer-park love triangle whose members end up pimping themselves on national TV. A-

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