Ah...college. Endless partying, insane amounts of alcohol, involuntary drug dealing??? Judge Bill Gibron enjoyed almost everything about this sly independent comedy—everything except the dope-peddling premise of the narrative, that is.
Darren just got his hands on some really good education.
As he wakes up with a horrible hangover, first-semester freshman Darren (Lou Taylor Pucci, Thumbsucker) senses something is wrong. His roommate Coleman (John Hensley, nip/tuck) has all but vanished. In his place are a pager, a piece of paper, and a container of pills. It turns out that Darren has just been kicked out of school, his already in place probation overturned when his dorm mate threw a party—without his consent, of course. Now he's lost his scholarship, his chance at financial aid, and the ability to better himself through education. Devastated, Darren prepares to leave when Coleman suddenly calls him. All hope is not lost. According to his friend, all Darren has to do is sell the Fifty Pills of Ecstasy he left behind (at $20 a pop) and raise the $1,000 he needs for next semester. Unskilled at the life of a drug dealer, Darren balks at first. But his love for a girl down the hall (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars) makes him reconsider his precarious position. Darren decides to play pusher and, before he knows it, he's interacting with some incredibly weird members of the Manhattan sleaze scene, a few angry mobsters, and the disappointment of his possible paramour.
There is nothing more frustrating in the world of independent cinema than a filmmaker who doesn't recognize the inherent value in the story they are striving to tell. Take Fifty Pills, for example. At the core of this convoluted look at college life we have a wonderful little story about a bravura roommate, the sheltered student who falls under his tainted tutelage, and the pretty young coed who longs to connect with our ineffectual hero. Give all three some tasty dialogue, a minor bit of narrative drive (the need to "do 'X' " in order to achieve a semester-ending goal), and lots of room to grow as characters, and you'd have something spot-on, a clear cut above the nonsensical nookie-driven tales that claim to cover the modern adolescent experience. But somewhere along the line, first-time feature filmmaker Theo Avgerinos got his cinematic wires crossed. Instead of taking Matthew Perniciaro's convoluted screenplay and cutting out all the quirky callbacks to the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, Avgerinos let the eccentricities subvert his subject, leaving us feeling overwhelmed by goofiness and angered by the lack of emotional heft. As individuals, Coleman, Darren, and Gracie are incredibly interesting…especially as played by John Hensley, Lou Taylor Pucci, and Kristen Bell, respectively. They all have an intriguing combination of inner strength and social sloppiness that makes them perfect for a kind of post-modern Jules et Jim. Instead, Pernicairo is obsessed with oddness and, without Avgerinos' filmmaking filter properly in place, these ancillary figures overpower the film.
Granted, the drug-dealing premise is equally lame. There is no need to make the storyline so shady, especially when it appears utilized to serve only the two irritating criminal characters in the film. Between our hot-blooded Hispanic mobster who wants payback for some suspect cocaine he was sold (which resulted in a toilet humor level of personal embarrassment) and the Asian hood whom uses a clever twist on his nickname to hide his identity from the law, we have two unnecessary subplots that subvert the real meat of our tale. Similarly, Darren's parents (played with a Christopher Guest level of lunatic improvisation by Jane Lynch and John Kapelos) get very little mileage out of their homespun homophobia shtick. The whole "compassionate conservative" approach to the gay joking is just dumb and, more importantly, does very little to expand our hero's personality or backstory. It's obvious, just like much of this movie. Indeed, when we visit a dominatrix's den, guarded by an all-knowing grandmother idly knitting away, we see that Perniciaro's blatantly mining for mirth. He doesn't understand how to get the comedy to come organically out of the situations or the people who populate them, so he has to subvert structure to get his transparent trickery accomplished. Such a mannered ideal undermines Fifty Pills at every turn, making what works struggle twice as hard for cinematic significance.
Still, the trio of talented actors in our leading roles essentially saves this film from completely falling apart. Lou Taylor Pucci's Darren is an earnest, well-meaning youth who slowly evolves over the course of the narrative from drip to determined, using the sometimes harsh lessons he learns to grow the backbone he's been missing all through the movie. Though she's kind of stuck with a dreamy doormat part, Bell breaks out of the good girl stereotype long enough to deliver a few cohesive lines with proper personality perspective. Her conversations with Pucci are excellent, filled with the kind of chemistry we expect from potential lovers. Rounding out the thespian excellence is John Hensley, hair and demeanor borrowed from Robbie Williams, façade formed out of the lies and easy living that have manufactured his make-up. He definitely boasts the kind of charisma that Pucci's Darren would be attracted to and, if there had been a few more moments of bonding between the two, we might have been able to buy the whole dope-peddling angle. But Avgerinos and Perniciaro jump to a lot of analytical conclusions, hoping the audience has enough information about the characters and their connection to accept their absurd adventures. But the truth is that we see through the need for such an over-the-top storyline. Indeed, Fifty Pills would work much better and, much more realistically, without all the fringe elements and dwellers. They make a potentially great film into something simultaneously good and grating.
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment has delivered quite a content-packed DVD with this release. Included as part of the bonus features are deleted and extended scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a full-length audio commentary. The added sequences are nothing very special. There is some supplementary dialogue between Coleman and his cloying girlfriend, more footage of Lynch and Kapelos cutting up, and an odd moment where Darren is confronted by a grubby drug-dealing bum in the park. None of this material is essential to the movie, and much of it is just pointless character interaction. As for the behind-the-scenes material, the most amazing aspect of the production is the utilization of L.A. sets in combination with New York exteriors. For all intents and purposes, the film gives off a definite Manhattan vibe with just a week of filming in the Big Apple. Finally there's the alternative narrative track, and it's basically a making-of affair. Featuring Avgerinos, Perniciaro, Director of Photography Harris Charalambous, and Producers Kevin Mann and Jake Demaray, they discuss the casting process, the autobiographical nature of the screenplay, and the fun of filming in New York City. It's not the most energetic conversation, but it does provide plenty of insight into how this movie was fashioned and formed. As for the actual technical aspects of the release, we are treated to a colorful, detailed 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, and a crystal clear and atmospheric Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix.
It really is too bad about Fifty Pills's proclivity toward overcomplicating things. Surviving your first month in college, especially with a suave, shady roommate like Coleman in your midst, is more than enough film fodder for any clever comedy. By adding all the unnecessary creative bric-a-brac, our filmmakers are guilty of foiling their own objectives.
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