The stealthy New York homicide cop, played by Robert De Niro, isn’t just an ace detective, he’s a bona fide celebrity — splashed across the pages of the New York Post and PEOPLE magazine more often than Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The evil scumbag hooligans, just off the plane from Russia and Czechoslovakia (how nice to have countries that won’t protest racist characterizations the way those pesky Arabs do!), aren’t just colorful and vicious. They’re jovial exhibitionist freaks who rip off a camcorder from a Times Square electronics shop, videotape themselves committing a pair of grisly retribution murders, and then come up with the oh-so-21st-century scheme of hawking one of the snuff videos to a tabloid TV show, whose host, played by a smirking Kelsey Grammer (Look! I’m pretending to be a sleazy guy! Am I a laff riot or what?!), snaps up the ratings bait all too eagerly. How American! How Warholian! How completely and utterly…unbelievable.
More and more, as I sit through the latest visually extravagant, emotionally hollow box office ”spectacle” of the week, I’m left, at the risk of sounding like a Joseph Lieberman crank, with the lingering question, Where’s the reality? This last month has been, shall we say, a rather thin one at the movies, yet there’s an eerie commonality to the current crop of high-profile duds. With the occasional exception, mainstream Hollywood films are starting to blend into a synthetic glob of top-heavy violence, airless ironic dialogue, and situations that have been thoroughly parsed in terms of pace and action and glossy image flow but not, for the most part, in any way that links them to recognizable human relationships. The accelerator-to-the-floor trash overkill of 3000 Miles to Graceland, the egregiously cute and monotonous convolutions of The Mexican, and now 15 Minutes, with its mismatched actors going through the motions of yet another tough-buddy romance and its ersatz-relevant media ”satire” — all three pictures seem to have come through the same corporate-entertainment pipeline, stacked with situations that are hyped yet numb, focus-grouped rather than felt. Directed, in two cases out of the three, by veteran honchos of TV advertising, these are feature-length commercials for their own megaflash vacancy.
It has become a cliche to say that drama is now more intimate on television, but I couldn’t help meditating on that truism after having experienced, over just a few days, the extraordinary performances of Jeffrey Wright in the HBO movie Boycott and Judy Davis in the ABC biopic Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Here were two powerful actors, both coming off the big screen, digging into some of the most inspired work of their careers. (Davis, especially, the jangly neurotic energy all but shooting out of her fingertips, did a seismic job of projecting Garland’s mad operatic will.) And do I even need to mention a certain acclaimed cable-TV series about a New Jersey Mob family? At this point, that particular show doesn’t just shame pictures like 15 Minutes or The Mexican. It shames — or, at least, it should — the entire film industry.
At the movies, we’re now bamboozled into expecting not drama but sensation, and so it’s no surprise that the plot of a movie like 15 Minutes is less an end in itself than an excuse, a jumping-off point for showy, contrived, borderline-exploitation sequences that fail to tie together because they’re not really there to do anything but sell themselves as money-shot thrills. The director, John Herzfeld, once made a terrific HBO movie himself (Don King: Only in America), but his 1996 feature, the smog-witted suspense comedy 2 Days in the Valley, was as coy as it was labored, and 15 Minutes is a glum and sadistic mess.
The movie is so awkward that it can barely even figure out how to get its two lead actors together. When a pair of murder victims are burned in an apartment fire, De Niro’s Eddie Flemming, who craves media attention, is forced to team up with a ”rival,” a young arson investigator named Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), who despises the press. The notion that these two would even have anything to be in conflict about is just a high-concept canard, and De Niro, who may never have walked through a role quite this joylessly, is matched for sheer dullness by the handsome but miserable-looking Burns. Meanwhile, the two villains, who are poppycock-spouting former-Soviet-bloc cartoons, persist in shooting everything with their camcorder, so that the movie can keep switching to trendy video footage that signifies…I don’t know what. The great digital void.
Of course, it would be unfair to treat 15 Minutes, or any one movie, as a definitive representation of Hollywood. Just a year ago, in the middle of the soft spring season, the release of Erin Brockovich and then, a bit later, Gladiator testified to the continuing possibilities of meaty and artful mainstream movies. What those films ultimately reveal, though, is that even entertainment conceived as escape shouldn’t — indeed, can’t — be severed from experience. It will hardly touch our heads or our hearts if all it does is to leave us asking, Where’s the reality?