Judge Joel Pearce prefers surreal coming-of-age flicks that star Jake Gyllenhaal and feature frightening giant bunnies.
Meet generation Rx
The nice thing about a title like The Chumscrubber is that you don't go into the movie with any real expectations. It wants to be the next Donnie Darko or American Beauty. It doesn't live up to the best deconstructions of suburbia, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored, either.
Facts of the Case
Troy was the local distributor of high school feel good drugs, until he inexplicably and suddenly committed suicide. He is found by his close friend Dean (Jamie Bell, Deathwatch), who responds by retreating further into himself. When a few of Troy's customers get annoyed at their sudden lack of drugs, they decide to kidnap Dean's little brother in order to force him to sneak into Troy's room and snag his drug stash.
The kidnappers are led by local bad boy Billy (Justin Chatwin, Taking Lives). He is followed by generic druggie Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci) and tragically named Crystal Falls (Camilla Belle, The Invisible Circus), who has more respect for Dean than the others. Unfortunately, they have fewer brains than creativity, and accidentally grab another boy that lives on the same street.
Through the whole kidnapping, none of the parents are aware of what is going on with their children. They are too busy ignoring their own problems.
Every generation of teens has a quintessential film, the movie that captures what it's like growing up in their era. Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, Donnie Darko…each generation needs a fictional account that it can point to and say, "That's how it feels to be me." The Chumscrubber wants to be that film for the current generation, but I don't think it will ever be embraced by the teens that it claims to represent. That's a shame, too, because it's not a bad little film.
There are several things that will keep The Chumscrubber from accomplishing its goal. For one thing, it has no real target audience. There isn't enough focus on the teens in order to make this a teen movie, but since most of the film is seen through Dean's perspective, parents will probably feel alienated by it as well. The biggest problem is that it has nothing new to say. The great dream of American suburbia has collapsed, and no one noticed. The only way to solve the problem is to shake things up somehow, to reintroduce chaos in order to force suburbanites to care once again. The arrival of Edward Scissorhands did this, as did Donnie Darko's explorations in other dimensions. Here, the shocker comes in the form of a suicide, which affects characters directly and indirectly.
The performances are excellent. Jamie Bell isn't given enough to do here, as Dean is passive for much of the film. He is still an impressive young actor, though, so I'm still looking forward to his next Billy Elliot-style role. The rest of the actors operate as an ensemble cast, and it is one hell of an ensemble. William Fichtner (Empire Falls) is typically impressive as Dean's famous psychologist father. Glenn Close (Heights) takes her role as a grieving mother way over the top as only she can. Carrie-Anne Moss (Memento) playfully pokes fun at her own image as the friends' mother to whom every boy wants access. Equally fine performances are delivered by Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Rita Wilson, and a number of other highly respected actors. The trouble is that we never really get to know any of them. It takes a very perceptive director to turn this many kooky performances into a great film. Altman can do it, as can Paul Thomas Anderson. The quantity of characters was more than Arie Posin could juggle at this point in his career. By the end of the film, we start to bond with some of the characters, but the first half whips by too fast. We waste too much time trying to figure out which characters are connected.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But that's enough whining. There are a number of great things about The Chumscrubber as well, that ultimately make it worth investigating. Although the message of the film is tired, it's approached in a somewhat unique way. I like the premise that we have become a medicated culture. The students are medicated in a literal sense: Troy has been supplying them with illegal drugs. But the rest of the characters seek catharsis through superficial means as well. Dean's father wants to use medication to deal with Dean's depression after Troy's death. Jerry Falls uses her beauty to keep herself feeling (and acting) young. Mayor Michael Ebbs has turned to pop psychology in order to find the solution to all of his problems. Dean's mom peddles vitamin pills. His younger brother spends long evenings playing video games. In this vision of suburbia, none of the characters are willing to face reality without something to protect them. When chaos is introduced and they are pulled out of their dulled existence, it's the first time in years they have dealt with anything unfiltered.
The film has an edgy, dark script, too, that goes by too quickly. This is a movie that should have taken its time, and let us get accustomed to its version of reality. There are some riotously funny scenes, especially as these characters collide. The whole film would have been great if it had moved at a better pace. As it stands, it's impossible to get a foothold in this bizarre neighborhood. I realize that this was probably an intentional choice. Since all of the characters are disconnected with reality, the whole film is designed to feel surreal. It does, but that also means that it doesn't feel like our own neighborhoods. One of the main reasons that American Beauty worked so well is that it was a familiar place. The Chumscrubber would have been wise to capture that better.
The transfer is up to Dreamworks' usual quality, with a filmlike video transfer and a great sound mix. There are extras as well, including a commentary with Arie Posin and screenwriter Zac Stanford. It's a dull track, with long gaps interspersed with explanations about the characters and script. Skip it. It's perfectly paired with the production featurette, which is the usual self-congratulatory studio drivel. The deleted scenes are much better, although they're inexplicably cropped to about 3.35:1.
I spent far too much of this review complaining. The Chumscrubber isn't a bad movie, and at times it's a very good one. Perhaps it would be best to describe it as a good film that should have been a great film. It falls short in too many ways, and the disappointment based on what it could have been gets in the way of admiring it for what it is. Hopefully, Arie Posin's next film will capitalize on that potential.
The Chumscrubber is instructed to get off the drugs.
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