Now that “the big screen” refers to a $5,000 television hanging in the family room, there’s something elegiac about the multiplex experience, a sense of doom pervading the empty rows. When I want to escape from this moribund atmosphere and still have a popcorn-munching good time, I turn to a roster of DVDs that I call—with a flagrant lack of originality—my Guilty Pleasures. They are studio movies that, though patently contrived, have stood the test of time (i.e., five or six years).Because these pleasures are guilty, I’ve gone to tiresome lengths not just to justify them to myself, but to define them as well.
First, a guilty pleasure should induce guilt. It must be neither overtly satirical nor so bad that it can be enjoyed ironically. Satire is its own alibi for a movie’s trashy subject matter, and irony, on the other hand, is the viewer’s. So, neither Heathers (satire) nor Showgirls (so bad it’s good) qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Guilty pleasures tend to operate on the low end of high concept. They usually feature at least one narrative gimmick or ludicrous plot twist, and, at some point, they ditch narrative coherence for the sake of titillation.
Secondly, a guilty pleasure must be a pleasure. I enjoy them as much as I enjoy my favorite “serious” films. And because of their hyper-vivid production values, I can get pleasure from guilty pleasures in circumstances—fatigue, distraction, inebriation—where I can’t really giveRenoir or Buñuel chin-in-hand attention. This essay, in other words, is a qualified defense of studio filmmaking. Lush sets, beautiful people, exotic locations expensively shot … studio films offer the heightened reality that people have always sought in their trips to the movie house. Or so I tell myself.
When I saw first Double Jeopardy, I figured Ashley Judd for a future Hollywood colossus. With her girlish radiance, virtuosic sobbing, feral grace, and that fantastic purr-snarl of a voice, she seemed like an impossible hybrid of Julia Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave, Kathleen Turner, and Vin Diesel. The movie did huge business, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of its subgenre: the gorgeous, ass-kicking soccer-mom flick. If your intelligence is overly sensitive, however, Double Jeopardy’s plot will insult it. Indeed, the movie rests on a premise so moronic that your mind actively rejects it. Judd plays Libby Parsons, who goes to prison for murdering her dashing husband, Nick, only to find out once she’s inside that he staged his own death and framed her for his murder. But one of her prison pals is a tough ex-lawyer who tells her that, thanks to the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause, she can’t be tried a second time for the same crime. When she gets out, she can just kill him for real this time, “and nobody can do a thing about it.” Now, the problems with this legal advice are … oh, never mind. Once Libby starts her prison fitness regimen, which consists of leg presses and angry jogging in the rain, you more or less forget about the whys. She and the movie have acquired a motive force.
Unlike Double Jeopardy, Devil’s Advocate has a plot that is at first merely audacious. It becomes ludicrous only at the very end. Young Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is recruited by a New York firm whose senior partner, John Milton (Al Pacino), may or may not be the devil. When Kevin gets to the big city, things get weird and sexy. Kevin’s devout Baptist mother warns that the city itself is evil, a portal of sorts to the underworld, and director Taylor Hackford does his best to make this warning resonate. He turns the city’s beauty against it with a series of nightmare flourishes—nightfall over Central Park in spooky time-lapse, the old financial district in jagged aerial sweeps, the glass canyon of Sixth Avenue in broad daylight, emptied of everything but windblown litter. The main attraction is Al Pacino as Milton/Lucifer. The movie waits awhile before confirming that Pacino’s Milton is in fact Satan, but come on. With that demonic hairline and the lizard thing he does with his tongue, who else could he be? Pacino had been playing the same basic character with varying degrees of dissonance and unintentional comedy since Scent of a Woman. Devil’s Advocate is its apotheosis, where Pacino finally becomes who he is. It’s heaven to watch.
One of the advantages of trashy genre movies is that they are free to re-create the more outsized histrionics of traditional theater—the conventional plotting, the overt choreography in staging, the explicit portrayal of villainy and innocence—in a way that serious film usually avoids. In Cruel Intentions, a prep-school version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Roger Kumble revels in this sort of artifice. The centerpiece of the story is the cynical jousting between the cad Valmont (Ryan Philippe) and his scheming stepsister Katherine (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who bets him that he can’t bed a celebrity virgin (Reese Witherspoon). Kumble stages these encounters as acerbic little chamber dramas, each with a dancerly use of exquisite Upper East Side spaces. Indeed, of all these movies, Cruel Intentions is the closest to being not so much a guilty pleasure as a plain old excellent film, except that it cranks up the raunch with gratuitous girl-kissing and rampant teenage sex. One scene culminates with Gellar delivering what may be the filthiest come-on in the history of teen movies. Also, its “tragic” ending is a bit of a clunker.
If Cruel Intentions is the most pleasurable of my guilty pleasures, Wild Things is the guiltiest. There’s a long tracking shot at the beginning of Wild Things that helps illustrate its appeal. It’s a sly, atmospheric shot that follows school counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) as he enters a high-school auditorium buzzing with excited chatter. As he reaches the stage the camera veers away from him and turns back to light upon popular senior Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) sitting imperiously in the front row. It’s hard to express the effect of this shot without getting all technical, so I’ll put it this way: Denise Richards is the hottest woman I’ve ever seen in a movie. This alone does not make a good movie, or even a guilty pleasure, but it’s a bracing start.
It sounds strange (or maybe just self-justifying) to say, but the outré titillation of Wild Things is organic to its style—which combines soapy suspense and droll comedy without ever drifting into camp. The suspense comes from a wildly elaborate plot about an infinite regress of scams (first a scam, and then some scammers scamming other scammers, and so on). The comedy comes from a brief but indelible appearance by Bill Murray. The soapiness comes from the Florida setting lovingly conjured by director John McNaughton—the fictional city of Blue Bay (love that name) that is half wealthy oceanfront enclave, half swamp town. One thing these guilty pleasures share is a saturated sense of place, and Wild Things, for its part,is delightfully swampy.
What is most memorable about these films, the reason I can dip into them time and again, is not so much their sex or scandal as their settings. And this, alas, represents a persistent advantage of large cynical studio films over small serious independent films. Small films can convey setting accurately and even evocatively. But the sense of place in these big movies is not just accurate or evocative. It’s erotic. That still makes me feel a little guilty.