Overwrought 'Kalifornia' is at once grimy and overly polished

September 03, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The French, who have a wondrous phrase for nearly everything, have a particularly vivid one for an all-too-common banality among the educated: nostalgie de la boue, or "nostalgia for the mud." This describes the morbid preoccupation of some intellects with matters of squalor and violence, with which they have no acquaintance.

"Kalifornia" is nostalgie de la boue distilled and purified into an essence so dedicated it all but knocks you out of your socks. It's more boue than nostalgie, as a matter of fact. It follows a dreamy young writer named Brian Kessler who is fascinated with serial killers -- he romanticizes them into "children" in need of "treatment," not punishment. Of course he and his girlfriend end up sharing a violent cross-country odyssey with the real McCoy, lTC in the shape of a creep named Early Grayce. The killer is far from the specially touched wild child of the writer's delicate imagination: He is, instead, greasy, grubby scum with the IQ of a fish and the moral imagination of the fly who feeds on the road kill smeared along Route 66.

It's a promising concept, albeit melodramatic, but what keeps the movie from halfway working is its infernal preciousness. Consider that oh-so-ironic name of the killer: "Early Grayce," so .. literary and archly amusing. That pretty much establishes the artistic agenda of the film: Every detail has been polished and honed for maximum irony and abstract beauty. The self-consciousness extends into the film's visual presence: It's one of those extremely galling pieces that is so in love with the fact of its own "movieness" that every frame has the look of a window in a trendy SoHo boutique. It should have been directed by a guy with one name, either Raul or Paul.

Actually, it was directed by Dominic Sena, who perfected his style in music vids and commercials. Big surprise, huh? But the big news in the film is its casting, with Brad Pitt, who's played more than a few pretty boys (as in "A River Runs Through It"), as Early, under a matting of grease, fading tattoos, lank, sullen hair and the surly attitude of a much-cuffed junkyard dog. His girlfriend Adele (pronounced, of course, A-dell) is played by Julliette Lewis, and even in the casting one senses insincerity. These two are currently flavors-of-the-month in Hollywood. There's something deeply irritating about their need to subsume their beauty and good fortune in portrayals of the wretched of the earth. It has the haughty stench of young lords slumming among fishmongers.

The intellectual couple, Brian and Carrie, are played by Richard Gere-look-alike David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes, who comes up with the movie's best performance. Duchovny and Forbes are offered up front as conventional liberal sophisticates, full of the usual prejudices and fascinations of that breed, but Forbes' Carrie at least has an instinct for the practical. When, by plot machinations too facile to be believed, Brian signs up Early Grayce and Adele as ride-sharers on a Pittsburgh-to-L.A. run, with stopovers at the sites of notorious multiple murders (so that the writer can "feel the pain"), Carrie takes one look at this stunted, slovenly mutant from the planet of the scum and his waif-like Poor Pitiful Pearl of a girlfriend and realizes that he's bad news. Later, director Sena comes up with an even more graphic image: When Early takes off his boot at a rest stop, she catches a whiff of his foot -- it's like a slap in the face and the odor of decay represents his spiritual decay. But only she smells it, while Brian persists in the usual excuses about how "it's not his fault, it was his upbringing, he's a victim," etc., etc.

Like oh so many intellectuals, Duchovny's Brian is fascinated with his brush with the actual, rather than the theoretical. Of course he's unequipped to process the data correctly, so flattered is he by Early's seemingly earnest attentions. Soon they're shooting guns and hanging out in biker bars, where Early's masculine power and remorseless recourse to violence is liberating to the uptight, sensitive Brian. But . . . Duchovny's character is conceived as so utterly stupid and oblivious, it's difficult to care for him. His idiocy is the key factor in his upcoming victimization.

What pleasure there is in "Kalifornia" is of the dark comic variety, much of it class-based. Everybody in the film feels superior to Adele, including Lewis; thus the character is denied even the smallest shred of dignity and her ignorance is treated as a source of much merriment. There's an air of sanctimony in the film that grows increasingly irritating.

"Kalifornia" really loses steam and interest as it travels down those hot dusty highways. Once the tension between the two couples is spent and it becomes clear who Early is, the movie becomes a less than routine and never more than predictable violent thriller, and the violence isn't filmed with enough originality to make it interesting. The climax is more convoluted than a blueprint of a computer.

And the movie even walks away from its themes. Seeming to begin as an account of an idealistic liberal's education in the dark reality of the world, it's so overwrought by the end that it doesn't have a moment to consider its moment of highest irony: when the liberal anti-capital punishment zealot Brian is squeezing the trigger on that most hated of all liberal icons, the semiautomatic pistol, as Early, leaking blood and venom, comes careening toward him.

"Kalifornia"

Starring Brad Pitt and Julliette Lewis

Directed by Dominic Sena

Released by Gramercy Pictures

Rated R

... **

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