Depth Psychology

The latest in serial killing (The Cell), a slacker romantic comedy (The Tao of Steve), and an amazing one-woman show (I’m the One That I Want). 

The Cell

Directed by Tarsem Singh

New Line Cinema

The Tao of Steve

Directed by Jenniphr Goodman

Sony Pictures Classics

I’m the One That I Want

Directed by Lionel Coleman

Cho Taussig Productions 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the serial-killer genre had used up most of its limited variations. There have been garden-variety serial killers, then serial killers whose killings formed hidden patterns discernible only to serial-killer specialists, then serial killers who stalked serial-killer specialists while recreating killings of other serial killers, then a serial killer composed of digitized elements of other serial killers superimposed on Russell Crowe. And what of the weirdo with the butcher knife who merely wants to waste a few babes? Hopelessly retro.

Serial-killer specialists have evolved as well. At first they just obsessed over scenes of carnage and gory 8-by-10 glossies. Then they developed telepathic links to serial killers. Then they began to use their advanced powers of empathy to anticipate (and possibly be ready to commit) more serial killings. My hat—if not my head—is off to screenwriter Mark Protosevich for a new leap. In The Cell, he gives us a heroine (Jennifer Lopez) who squeezes into a sinewy rubber suit, drapes a sort of high-tech washcloth over her face, suspends herself from wires, and psychically jumps into the mind of a serial killer. What does it look like in there? A production of Der Ring des Nibelungen that you never want to sit through.

Lopez isn’t a serial-killer specialist exactly. She’s a child therapist, a social worker, and this jumping-into-heads gizmo wasn’t meant for plumbing the minds of serial killers but for reaching non-lethal schizophrenics through, as it were, the basement door. The problem is that the FBI has captured a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) with a penchant for putting dog collars around the necks of young women, chaining them up in a giant tank for exactly 40 hours, and then drowning them. And damned if he hasn’t had some kind of irreversible seizure about a day after grabbing his latest victim—who’ll be drowned like clockwork unless Jennifer can do her big cyberempathy number and find out where his chamber of horrors is hidden. She isn’t eager to visit this creep in the context of his own sick mindscape, but the agent in charge (Vince Vaughn) shows her a tape of the previous victim’s final moments, and it’s the feel-bad video of the year. So she suits up.

Most of The Cell is Alice in Schizoland, with Lopez trying to look waifishly expectant. (Not so easy—those imperious lips must have told a lot of Latin men where to put it.) Her costumes (by Eiko Ishioka) are a Vegas act in themselves. The bodice-hugging white evening gown is the most flattering and the curly Japanese muzzle-mask the most alluringly sadomasochistic. She even gets away with the opening outfit, an ostrich-plumed fairy godmother number. But that futuristic nun get-up—please. For its costumes alone, The Cell could end up a gay midnight sensation.

It is fun to watch director Tarsem Singh (a big wheel in music videos) and his designers translate Dalí and Francis Bacon into the third dimension. Suspended dolls evoke the women in the killer’s tank, while huge cogs and filaments recall the machine that even in its maker’s physical absence will soon drown its final prisoner. D’Onofrio presides over a rotting-industrial throne room like a demonic Japanese feudal lord, his purple train so long it’s somehow obscene. The music—Indian pipes with simultaneous brass bands and car horns—sounds like Charles Ives blowing raspberries from hell.

The Cell is pretty silly. But I admired its cinematic ambition until the final scenes, in which Singh cross-cuts between Lopez fighting evil in the dream world and Vaughn making his save-the-drowning-girl charge in the real one. The two-for-the-price-of-one climax doesn’t double the thrills; it cuts them in half. And there’s a deeper, more nagging flaw. The killer is two people in his own head: the monster he became and the sweet little boy whose father beat him up and held him too long underwater at his baptism. Lopez, the kindly child therapist, bonds with the kid and makes it her mission to save him. So, the movie ends on a bloody but merciful note. 

Now, I’m a pretty merciful guy, and in the real world I’m suspicious of capital punishment. But in common with most people, when I go to a serial-killer flick I don’t want to see the serial killer (or even his inner child) coddled and empathized with and forgiven. I want to see him shot, stabbed, impaled, eviscerated, and finally engulfed—shrieking—in flames. The Cell serves up some of the most gruesomely misogynistic imagery in years, then ends with a bid for understanding. Are its makers so deluded that they think they’re making the world a more compassionate place?

Dex (Donal Logue), the fat and voluble protagonist of The Tao of Steve, has sex all the time with cute women, a fact that he credits to the title credo—which can be translated, in essence, as “Be like Steve McQueen.” Dex lays out this philosophy of cool as if it’s The Rules for guys, but an early snatch of Don Giovanni is our tip-off that his addiction to seducing and vanishing is a sign of his Kierkegaardian despair. (Kierkegaard is invoked along with McQueen and Mozart.) Another tip-off is that he says more in this movie than Steve McQueen said in all his pictures put together. The clincher is those extra pounds, a worrisome new development. He’s incorrigibly promiscuous, but he refuses to take off his shirt.

As a bit of a (temporary, short-term) tubby myself, I’m uncomfortable with the use of weight gain as a symbol for depression, self-indulgence, and failure to get off the couch of life. That aside, The Tao of Steve went down like a slice of warm pecan pie topped with two scoops of Ben and Jerry’s Bovinity Divinity. For one thing, it has some of the funniest romantic banter in a movie in years—looser and less epigrammatic than The Opposite of Sex (1998), the last really quotable comedy. The weight makes Logue look a little like Bryn Terfel, the Welsh baritone who sang Mozart’s Don on a recent recording, and Dex has his own hilarious arias of seduction. He also has a ready response when challenged on his lifestyle: “Doing stuff is overrated,” he tells Syd (Greer Goodman), a former classmate who’s mysteriously—and annoyingly—resistant to his patter. “Like, Hitler did a lot, and don’t we all wish he’d stayed home and got stoned?” And later, Dex explains the chief reason for his lack of motivation: “If you’ve figured out how to get laid without ever doing anything, there’s no reason to get off the couch.”

Syd is in town working as a free-lance designer for the Santa Fe Opera production of—guess what! Which means she’s in a good position to tell Dex what’s wrong with him: “If you’re attached to nothing, you lose nothing.” That she does so without seeming remotely like a killjoy is testament to Greer Goodman’s easy charm, and to the smart, hyperliterate comebacks she helped to write. The script, by Duncan North and based on his own life (that’s noted in the credits), has been lovingly goosed by the actress and the director, Jenniphr Goodman, whose only wrong move is not fixing the spelling of her first name. If the resolution is too predictable, too pat, too movieish, well—I don’t go to fluffy romantic comedies to see people ultimately deprived of pleasure. Reality, like my diet, can wait.

It would be a crime to give away any of the great lines in the film of Margaret Cho’s one-woman show I’m the One That I Want. A lot of the jokes are at her own expense—she’s beating the racists and the sexists to the punch line. But the routine doesn’t have the masochistic tinge of other self-proclaimed “fag hags.” Cho is one of the precious few who can spin lack of self-esteem into comic gold, and she seems to get bigger onstage by the minute.

The core of the routine is her elation and then crushing despair over All-American Girl, Cho’s much-hyped ABC sitcom that fizzled after half a season. When executives found her face “too full” (Cho is Korean-American, and it’s in the bone structure), she lost 30 pounds in two weeks, whereupon her kidneys collapsed. They recovered, but the series didn’t. First it was judged not Asian enough, then after an “Asian consultant” was hired to add ethnic flourishes, too Asian. When it was canned and her attempts to sell a screenplay failed, her then-manager said, “You know, Margaret, I think the Asian thing puts people off.” She bottomed out on alcohol and crystal-meth.

This litany of insults is true to the movie, yet misrepresents it. Cho is asking her audience in a thousand different ways: “How could I have let this stuff get to me? How can I still?” The laughs dispel the hurt—for now. Watch Cho react to the joyful screams her lines elicit, tilting her head back, a strange grimace—half comic, half tragic—spreading over her face. She’s reveling in her humiliation and transcending it at the same time. This is an amazing movie.