The Ecstasy and the Agony

Groove is buoyant and all-embracing; watching Love’s Labour’s Lost is hard labor.

Directed by Greg Harrison
Sony Pictures Classics

Love’s Labour’s Lost
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Miramax Films

The great joke at the center of Groove is that the Information Age has produced a class of smarter, more organized, more responsible outlaw druggies. At the start, a superefficient posse of twentysomething rave-organizers checks out an empty building in the warehouse district of San Francisco. (Their high-beam flashlights make them look like agents in The X-Files.) Satisfied that they can make the place rave-able in a scant few hours, they fire off e-mail invitations to the young and cool. They don’t give the location of the party; they give the location of a nearby parking lot, from which they dispense additional directions—this to keep the cops and the uncool at bay. The rest of the movie is the rave itself: people swallowing ecstasy and writhing under psychedelic lights to techno, house, and trance music, spun by godlike DJs blending songs from two or three turntables; or people reclining in “the Chill Room” while making out or sucking lollipops. There’s a lot of hugging and high-fiving, and even the stray bad vibes (there are a few) become submerged in a forgiving wash of sound and light. Welcome to heaven.

Despite the illegalities on display, Groove offers the most wholesome vision of orgiastic oneness imaginable—it’s a raver’s version of The Love Boat. The movie is a little bland, but it puts you in the mood to forgive it: relaxed and mellow and accepting. Greg Harrison, the writer and director (and editor), is exploring the same subculture John Reiss does in his documentary Better Living Through Circuitry (currently in theaters) but without the messianic self-importance. Groove has a sense of humor about itself. The rave promoter, Ernie (Steve Van Wormer), is a fount of positive energy; he’s like an uninsistent revivalist whose DJs do the preaching. Stern yet merciful, he polices the rave for nonapproved substances and directs his minions to tend to those who’ve overindulged. He’s Father Knows Best and Auntie Mame and Bill Murray in one, and Van Wormer plays him with just the right blend of gravity and irreverence.

Like Ernie, Harrison doesn’t impose. The credit sequence is a techno-blast of imagery, but then the movie settles into a more casual groove. Characters and strands of plot are picked up and set down with a DJ’s feathery touch. If there’s a protagonist, it’s David (Hamish Linklater), a tense straight-arrow who’s corralled into coming by his younger brother, Colin (Denny Kirkwood). David doesn’t have a lot of trust, but in the throes of ecstasy he finds himself reaching out to Leyla (Lola Glaudini), a tall free-spirit in leather pants and gold braids. They’re an endearing couple. A skinny guy with a cleft chin and a big Adam’s apple, Linklater can seem dangerously passive for a romantic hero, but he has the right caged-in-his-own-head hesitancy, and the nakedly needy way he looks at Glaudini breaks your heart. Her heart, too. In the course of this long night, you see that her costume is meant to make her look more self-possessed than she really is—that she’s dying inside from the lack of commitment in her life—which this earnest goofball can obviously give her.

In interviews, Harrison has cited such elegiac influences as American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), but this one doesn’t have the same historical distance. It’s more glancing, less resolved. The director wants to say something about the fluid sexuality of the rave generation, but he’s not sure what, so he introduces a crisis—Colin’s young fiancee, Harmony (Mackenzie Firgens), finds him necking with a man—and then lets it drop. (I wanted more of Firgens, who has the fragile prettiness of Gwen Welles in Nashville [1975].) A running subplot about two bitchy gay guys who can’t find the rave comes dangerously close to implying that out-and-out homosexuals don’t belong. (The pair does have a hilarious moment when they find a crumpled map in a parking lot and drive off excitedly, making techno-whooshy noises.) Harrison comes nearest to his models in the final scenes, at daybreak, in which the characters must return to their ordinary lives. The magic has passed, and in the sunlight, in the sudden quiet, they seem small and pensive.

Groove made me nostalgic. I went to a rave in San Francisco in 1991 but never did the ecstasy thing. (I chug-a-lugged some bad-tasting amino-acid drinks and ended up with a mouth full of cold sores.) But I could see, from the outside, the transformative power of that music, which plugged into peoples’ heartbeats and put them into trances: They seemed both superalert and detached—the Zen ideal. Of course, dances have functioned as trance-inducers since the dawn of humankind. What’s innovative about the rave scene is that its denizens are amateur pharmacists. The ecstasy in Groove is sold by a chemistry instructor (Ari Gold) who discourses on neurotransmitters and serotonin and dopamine uptake and says, “To be a successful drug user, you’ve got to be well-informed.” You could argue that even well-informed illicit drug users are putting themselves at risk, but this much is certain: Ecstasy is a hell of a lot less destructive than cocaine. Druggies are evolving, dude.

A colleague who went to the post-screening party for Love’s Labour’sLost at this year’s Cannes Film Festival told me that no one talked about the film and that Kenneth Branagh, its director, star, and adapter, didn’t bring it up, either. I don’t know whether that’s a true story, but I’d like to believe that it is—that even showbiz people would have the taste not to lie to one another about this one. This movie is unfathomably awful. Branagh has taken one of Shakespeare’s subtlest high comedies, eviscerated it, then added campy, MGM-style renditions of old standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, etc. Even if you can ignore the bleeding entrails of Love’s Labour’s Lost, it’s hard to ignore the fact that almost no one in the cast can sing or dance.

Has Branagh lost his mind? His film of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was directed in bang-bang style for a mass audience, but it more or less got the themes right, and Branagh and Emma Thompson played world-class pingpong with those Beatrice and Benedick exchanges. Love’s Labour’s Lost is the greater play: a daringly sardonic portrait of people who are, in Northrup Frye’s words, “prisoners of their own wit.” The king of Navarre and three of his male subjects convince themselves to swear off women in the name of scholarship. When four comely ladies show up they convince themselves that love supersedes all. But the final act—a masked ball in which each man ends up wooing the wrong woman—shows their love to be illusory: What they “loved” was their own reflection in the “loved” one’s eye. This is one of the few Shakespeare comedies that doesn’t end in marriage.

I don’t know how he did it, but Branagh has contrived to lose the climactic revelations of the ball, so that the play adds up to precisely nothing. Or, rather, to a featherweight romp in which nothing is remotely at stake. The first number Branagh stages has a pleasing fluidity (it’s filmed without cuts), but why are these men cavorting like four Gene Kellys when they’ve just resolved to spend the next three years celibate and with their noses buried in books? The play hasn’t just been butchered, it has been lobotomized. The movie has been tricked out with “March of Time”-style newsreels, including a jaw-dropper at the end that follows the characters through World War II. The scariest thing? Love’s Labour’s Lost is produced by something called “The Shakespeare Film Company.” Does that mean there’s more where this came from? I’d rather see Ethan Hawke as King Lear.