Judge Rafael Gamboa's first time was infinitely more exciting than Mini's.
"There's a first time for everything."
This movie isn't bad. It also isn't good. Hell, it isn't much of anything, really. It's like the fifth chip ingested from a handful of a dozen: you know you ate it because it's not in your hand anymore, but you can't remember anything about that particular chip that distinguished it from the rest. It was absent-mindedly chewed and digested, its lack of distinguishing characteristics contributing to its rapid decline from the forefront of your memory.
It will be a mighty struggle to find anything to else to say about this movie, but when you're as exorbitantly paid as I am to dole out my superior opinion about DVDs and their contents to the plebeian masses, there's no reason why I shouldn't try.
Facts of the Case
Inspection of the front cover of the case seems promising. The first thing one notices is the impeccably tanned lithe body of a girl clad in a scarlet bikini, reclining sumptuously on a golden pool float that rests atop the aquamarine surface of the water. Upon noticing the title of the film, a natural connection is made between the image and the words, a train of thought confirmed by the word immediately beneath the title: "Sex." The rest of the tagline reads "Murder. Blackmail. There's a first time for everything." Hmm…a sex thriller; intriguing. A cursory glance at the list of actors' names encourages one's eyebrow to raise, impressed at the famous names tantalizing the eye in their slick minimalist font. Even more intriguing. This merits turning the case over to read the back, which reads thusly:
"Mini (Nikki Reed, Thirteen) is just like any other teenage girl. She doesn't have much time for school—stealing drugs from the nurse's office when she does attend. She likes to go to parties—occasionally jumping out of the cake naked. She's active in the neighborhood—cozying up to a lecherous TV producer (Jeff Goldblum, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). She has an after-school job—whoring herself out for an escort service. She has a conflicted relationship with her mother—a promiscuous, drug-addled alcoholic (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix). And she's the apple of her daddy's eye—in this case her oblivious, wealthy stepfather, Martin (Alec Baldwin, The Cooler). But what Mini likes best are her 'firsts'. She's willing to try anything just once—and that might include sleeping with her stepfather, getting rid of her mother and lying to a persistent detective (Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums). Can Mini outsmart them all, using her wicked wiles to get away with her hilariously scandalous behavior? Well, there's a first time for everything."
Having successfully interpreted the abstract figures printed on both sides of the DVD case into the words they represent, one should have received several key impressions. The nine not-terribly-subtle references and allusions to sexual debauchery (combined with an image of Alec Baldwin rubbing suntan lotion all over Nikki Reed's taut tummy) should have the reader fanning him or herself to combat the titillation inspired by the mere prospect of the volumes of sex and nudity this movie promises to deliver. The high-profile cast list suggests a high production value, which further suggests that this sex thriller will probably not be campy softcore porn, but might actually be engaging in levels surpassing those of voyeuristic indulgence. And finally, the phrase "hilariously scandalous" emphasizes the notion that this film is supposed to be oodles of naughty fun.
Excited? Here comes the cold shower.
Maybe it's due to the fact this film was made in the dry, flaccid era just before Justin Timberlake did the impossible and brought sexy back from the precarious edge of extinction, but whatever the reason, Mini's First Time is 95% not sexy. There's zero nudity (not that that's a requirement, by any means), and what few sexual encounters transpire throughout the course of this celluloid adventure are surprisingly short. However, there's no denying that each of them is specifically designed to attack the erogenous zones in your psyche, particularly the ones regarding taboo fantasy. Sex with the masseuse, sex with the stepfather in the shower and in a bed draped with animal furs while the mother is in the house, exhibitionism…well, you get the idea. It's trying real hard to turn you on through explicit context and not-explicit content, which is admirable in this day and age (though probably to be expected given it's an HBO movie and not an independent French orgy-fest). And there was nothing terribly wrong about the execution of this technique: the actors are all gifted and the writing was good, as was the cinematography. So what went wrong? Surprisingly, the set design is to blame.
The film takes place in a world that looks like the incarnation of a modernist's wet dream. There is not a single natural line to be found in the design of Mini's house; artificiality is the defining characteristic of the physical environment in which she and everyone she knows operates. Those few places that aren't dominated by the austere metallic minimalism of Mini's paradoxically opulent house receive only the passing interest of the camera, which chooses to focus on the people rather than the location. But that's only when we're not in Mini's house or her stepfather's business; once we are, the camera's attitude changes entirely and a heavy emphasis is placed on the look of the architecture and décor—which is inhumanly sterile. It's as if a car dealership and a hospital gave birth to a hybrid monstrosity of modernity, touched here and there by Andy Warhol's disembodied essence. And finally, the dominant color in the film's palette is blue, practically the coldest color there is. The ultimate effect is the creation of a dead world, its vitality drained by the effort required to maintain its plastic affectations. This is obviously intentional, and is supremely effective in capturing the quiet desperation and imprisonment of the rich and the indolent.
But now we come to the problem: how can anything be sexy in such an aseptic environment? There is no warmth; no fluidity to the visual construction of the film. It is so cold and clinical that no matter how good looking Mini is, she can't break past her depressing confines. The filmmakers seem to realize this, because there are parts where the film lapses into flashy imagery in an attempt to put some spark into it, but these sequences are about as much eye candy as the aging Las Vegas stripper who cakes on the mascara to hide what every one else already knows. It makes the movie even more hollow and uninviting. So all these scenes designed to be arousing are defeated by their expertise in crafting the world, and they fall flat. The sex becomes boring. So much for the advertising campaign.
The "sex" part didn't work, but what about the "thriller" part? Well, I suppose there's nothing awful about the story. It's decent enough. The synopsis gave it all away except for the predictable ending, but that really can't be helped. The thing is, Mini is a character taken straight out of a latin soap opera. The conniving, manipulative bombshell who dual-wields sex and brains to devastate the lives of others is an off-the-shelf staple for the generic telenovela. There's nothing original about Mini; she's just a hollow little shell of a knockoff character. This is a major misfortune for the film, since she is the protagonist, and ultimately the character the audience is supposed to identify with in some way (the film explicitly states this towards the end). Even if you could identify with her unpleasant situation at the beginning of the film (which is unlikely, since it really doesn't seem to affect her state of mind—in fact, she seems to enjoy it), her subsequent actions and their numbed presentation don't give the viewer much to latch on to, which is not at all helped by her cookie-cutter personality.
What's worse, the story is lacking in anything original either. It's a well-executed but entirely predictable and re-hashed little plot of intrigue, betrayal, and promiscuity. We've seen every plot point before, and we've seen it presented in a way very similar to this one. But since it's tidily done with some good dialogue and supremely competent cinematography, its ends up being vaguely bland and unsatisfying rather than tasting like rancid mayonnaise.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One outstanding thing about this movie is the acting. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jeff Goldblum in particular deliver some wonderful performances as the two most interesting characters: Mini's drugged up whore of a mother and her deliciously sleazy next door neighbor, respectively. Then again, there has been a scientific study that has conclusively proved that Moss and Goldblum are psychologically, physically, and spiritually incapable of acting poorly, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. Alec Baldwin is quite convincing in his role as Martin the business mogul stepfather, and plays it with a natural dignity. Luke Wilson is good as the deceptively awkward detective, and Nikki Reed—well, how hard is it for a hot youth to play a hot youth? The role, unfortunately, doesn't give her as much to work with as she had in Thirteen, but there's no doubt the girl has talent. And, for you basketball fans out there, Rick Fox makes a hilarious cameo as the man-whore masseuse Fabrizzio.
More important than the acting, though, is the incredible attention to detail. Whatever its faults on the grander scale of storytelling, the film has a remarkably nuanced psychological language that manifests itself in the physical details of the environment. Mini's room, for instance: a spare, empty, functional room, the kind of room fitting for someone who isn't easily distracted and who embodies the word "purposeful." The bearskin blanket becomes symbolic of her ability to swallow up the lives of others like the predatory femme fatale she is. In contrast, her mother's room is the more cluttered, girly den of one who is far too frivolous to accomplish anything significant in her life. It's a room that speaks volumes about her immaturity. The visual similarity of Martin's workplace to his house underscores the fact that Martin's approach to business is the same duplicitous approach he has to his personal life, that of a man who cares about maintaining appearances that mask his actual motives and actions. There are many other such details, tinier details than the fairly big ones I've mentioned, that are all the product of a very promising cinematic eye. It's a level of meticulousness that is rare to see.
The DVD special features are as spare as Mini's modernist house, offering only a commentary track with writer-director Nick Guthe. The commentary track, however, is very much worth your time. It is a surprisingly excellent commentary that provides a wealth of information about production, thematic techniques, insider info, and all the works.
The film ends up feeling more like an exercise in film craft rather than film narrative. If anything, it feels more like an elongated TV episode of some sort of slick-hip drama series, like The OC or something of that nature. But more importantly, the good is so perfectly balanced with the bad that the exciting parts are dull and the dull parts are exciting, achieving a near-perfect level of mediocrity. It doesn't suck, but it doesn't get anywhere interesting. It's a hot Ferrari eternally waiting for the light to turn green, idling its engines and looking pretty with its metallic blue paint job.
Flip a coin.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer-Director Nick Guthe
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