Our review of Bully (2011) (Blu-ray), published February 12th, 2013, is also available.
When slackers attack!
Imagine if you mixed photographer/filmmaker David Hamilton, purveyor of gauzy teen smut, with low-life writer Charles Bukowski. The result would be filmmaker Larry Clark (Kids). Two bad tastes that taste worse together, to paraphrase the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups commercials.
Facts of the Case
Some film characters who apparently resemble Larry Clark's conception of American teenagers spend about 45 minutes basically hanging out, quelling their ennui with drugs and sex. One of them, Bobby (Nick Stahl), is either a jerk or a psychopath, depending on which particular scene one happens to be watching. Bobby bullies (hence the title of the flick) his buddy Marty (Brad Renfro), making him strip at gay clubs and have phone sex with middle-aged men (I'm not kidding, so stop laughing). The boys however, are decidedly not gay, or maybe they are—Larry Clark can't really seem to decide. Anyway, Bobby and Marty sort of hook up with a couple chicks who like to get their freak on, Lisa (ex-Mrs. Macaulay Culkin, Rachel Miner) and Ali (Bijou Phillips).
So, we're now about 45 minutes into the movie and suddenly we're presented with something that looks suspiciously like a plot. Lisa decides she doesn't like the way Bobby treats Marty and, in a Bizarro-world version of the Little Rascals' come-on-kids-let's-put-on-a-show schtick, she gets together a bunch of other slackers and they do Bobby in, Julius Caesar style.
Because every single character in the film is a complete and utter moron, they're all immediately caught by the police and things are wrapped up with the tried-and-true American Graffiti-style freeze-frame blurbs about the characters' fates (as if we care).
This film is an exercise in schadenfreude, completely Jerry Springer in its approach: the characters (if they even reach the threshold necessary to be considered characters) are so vapid and morally bankrupt that we couldn't care less how Clark exploits them. And exploit them he does. Clark is lauded by some for his stark realism, but is real truly an appropriate word to use in describing his work? Beyond the physical realism (drug and alcohol use, naked bodies), are the soulless individuals he presents us with real, or is realism a veneer used to hide Clark's romanticizing (maybe even fetishizing) of slacker stereotypes? For instance, when the characters speak they say all the right words, all the vulgarities and slang and emptiness of teen-speak, but the conversations are disjointed, imply emotions that aren't there and aren't warranted by what we're seeing. In other words, despite the illusion that the characters speak like real kids, the rhythms are all wrong; listen closely and you'll discover they don't speak like kids at all. Larry Clark is a sixty-year-old man making films about a group of people with whom he can identify very little. What he does know is how to exploit them.
Bully is based on a true story, but there's been much controversy because everyone who knew the people actually involved in the horrors depicted in the film says Clark got it all wrong, he got the people wrong. I've got to believe that's true, because the film isn't populated with people at all, there's not one to be found. There's an engaging story to be told here, but it requires someone who can look truthfully at the complexities of the human soul. Larry Clark instead spends his time looking at Bijou Phillips' panties.
I can say this, the image quality on the DVD is good, rich and deep and created from a very clean print of the film. The 5.1 track is nice, too. But who cares? The movie sucks.
Extras include an interview with Larry Clark in which he philosophizes ridiculously as though there's depth to this film. At one point, he actually says Nick Stahl will be the next Edward Norton or James Woods; the next Skeet Ulrich, perhaps, but not Ed Norton. [Editor's Note: Or the next Edward Furlong perhaps, considering he's replacing him in the next Terminator sequel.] There's some cast interviews that offer vulgarities and pop psychology drivel, but absolutely no insight into the characters these actors are playing (the actors, by the way, all do a fairly serviceable job with the non-material they're given). Finally, just in case you were fooled throughout the movie and believed you were watching art and not exploitation, we have the "Real People" extra: the mugshots of the individuals involved in the real-life crime. It's hard to imagine anything more tasteless (maybe if the real Marty ever finally gets fried in the chair, they can include footage of it in a new special edition). Sadly, the static mugshots somehow convey more humanity than the film itself—they're pictures of real kids, and you can see they're real kids.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"But Roger Ebert gave this film four stars," you say. Yes, he did. This is the sort of film critics go for, because they know the bourgeoisie will hate it and they're afraid if they don't ramble on about its brilliance and authenticity, they'll look like philistines to all their peers who are neck-deep in post-modernism despite the fact real academics sort of know, even if they don't want to admit it to themselves, that post-modernism's gone into a fairly rapid decay. Or maybe Ebert truly liked it. Anyway, he also likes the films of Catherine Breillat (Romance), which emerge from the same nonsensical, post-modern moral confusion as Clark's. Breillat does a good job of speaking the language of a Women's Studies Program feminist, but one feels the true purpose of her work is to indulge her fetish for exploiting and degrading the young women unlucky enough to be in her films. To take things a step further, Clark and Breillat remind me of William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and his obsession with writing about having killed his own wife. At first, he seems to be confronting reality in a true and honest way, but he goes back to that same well so often one begins to see it's been exploitation all along. Point is, I don't think Ebert could be more wrong about Bully.
"But slackers—the very people Clark's films are about—idolize him," you say. So? That's likely a sign he's not being real at all, is just presenting them with a romanticized version of themselves, a world in which there's a sort of dirty-chic attached to their adolescent aimlessness. He elevates their self-indulgence to a sort of post-modern nihilism. It's nonsense.
I don't mind a cheesy exploitation flick; what I can't stomach is an exploitation flick that tries as hard as it can to convince me it's art. This film is as moronic, aimless, and easy to peg as its protagonists.
Guilty. Get this piece of trash out of my courtroom.
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