`Series 7' is on target

Review: This witty knockoff of reality TV takes the genre to its obvious conclusion as losers are, well, knocked off.

April 13, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

To borrow from Jean-Luc Godard: "Series 7: The Contenders" works because the jokes are funny and the bullets are real. In this breathless burlesque of pseudo-reality TV, contestants don't vote each other off an island or a boot camp - they knock each other off the planet with any means at hand, from a gun or knife to a cane or a crutch.

The film is a satiric assault weapon. It mows down everything in its path. The line of fire circles out from post-"Real World" and "Survivor" game shows to a mainstream culture that devalues emotions while peddling cheap thrills.

That's not to say the film is scattershot. "Series 7" has such tremendous zing because it makes a viewer question whether video-based reality has taken over. Unpretentious and brashly exploitative, it makes you question with startling immediacy how you know what you think you know.

The movie's biggest flaw is its setup. The rules go by too quickly. You're never sure whether "The Contenders" is strictly a commercial series, or a government-sponsored lottery-cum-spectacle set in an Orwellian near-future.

At the height of the "Survivor" craze last summer, a syndicated job column recommended that employees everywhere squelch their criticisms of the show and join coffee-break discussions with co-workers. The writer-director of "Series 7," Daniel Minahan, succeeds in persuading us that "The Contenders" is a similar, inescapable national phenomenon.

The movie is presented as the multi-part, seventh-series wrap-up of "The Contenders." It's built on the blood, sweat and tears of Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith), the reigning, eight-months-pregnant champion - a killer of 10 and soon-to-be mother of one. She can leave the game a free and wealthy woman if she wipes out five more competitors. She's the ultimate in survivor ethics. Dawn says she's doing it for her baby - and Smith makes us believe her. But her 24/7 wariness suggests she also knows she's being had.

In the opening minutes, Dawn scores a hit in a convenience store, then asks the counter guy for bean dip. You don't know what to make of this forthright, hugely pregnant woman. But you know you can't dismiss her. She brings her own perspiration-soaked truth to the manipulated surface of the TV show; you suspect that's why "The Contenders" sets her up as a heroine.

Brooke Smith's Dawn is to reality TV as Brando was to the movies - she galvanizes the form and breaks the accepted star mold. Thanks to Dawn's character and Smith's performance, "Series 7" is both horrifying and hilarious. The blood and the bean dip balance each other out.

A veteran of search-and-destroy and scorched-earth television for the Fox television network (he was a segment producer for "Front Page"), Minahan turns the film frame into a roving gun sight on a video firing range. Shooting on digital cameras and transferring images to celluloid, Minahan ruthlessly maintains the relentless pace and kinetic zap of dare-you-to-look-away TV.

But Minahan's insight goes beyond video know-how. He recognizes that the sadism of pop culture extends to the pumped-up athletic ethos of "no pain, no gain." And he also conveys that the flip side of physical extremism and violence is sappy kitsch and sentimentality.

At the height of the carnage in "Series 7," Minahan intercuts the wet-eyed, up-close-and-personal interviews that make even TV coverage of Olympics come off as a load of hooey.

Dawn's most formidable rival is Connie, an ER nurse who sees herself as an Angel of Death. Played brilliantly by Marylouise Burke, she's a cross between Nurse Ratched and Church Lady.

The next best figure of bloodbath burlesque is a pampered teen, Lindsey (Merritt Wever), whose parents equip her splendidly, drive her to her shootouts and cheer her on. (Donna Hanover, the estranged wife of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, plays Lindsey's sock-it-to-'em soccer mom excruciatingly well.)

But Dawn is the joker who won't be shuffled into the deck - and neither will her final opponent, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), her high school sweetheart and misfit soul-mate. (They once collaborated on a prophetic - and, to us, hilarious - art video called "Love Will Tear Us Apart.")

Jeff has testicular cancer. On camera, he works out his feelings of mortality, his sexual confusion and hypocrisy, his marriage of convenience with his wife (Angelina Phillips) and his continued devotion to his old girlfriend. As a result, the Dawn Lagarto tornado tears the series' game plan apart.

"Series 7" makes a movie audience confront the five-and-dime catharsis of reality TV. But it also taps our need to create heroes who are both underdogs and winners. When Dawn holds members of a movie audience hostage, they cheer when they hear her threaten to kill them.

This scabrous little parody is on to something huge: a spectator culture that blurs the line between thrills and agony, and turns sporting victory into suicidal moral defeat.

`Series 7: The Contenders'

Starring Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald

Directed by Daniel Minahan

Rated R (strong violent content and language)

Released by USA Films

Running time 86 minutes

Sun score * * *

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