Two consecutive films about tabloid culture’s effect on the United States. Two consecutive weeks of me being able to use terms such as “tabloid culture,” “sensationalism,” “satire” and “perfunctory jabs” to make my point. Two consecutive attempts to break down the various concepts that went into these less-than-two-hours projects, concepts complex enough to warrant their own documentary series, and me failing miserably to do them any justice.
I’m glad this happened, because where last week’s Series 7: The Contenders succeeds, in all of its low-budget, independent glory, 15 Minutes comes up short in almost every way in its glossier, more mainstream sheen, and it’s fun to figure out why this is. My biggest problem is that 15 Minutes is unsure of what kind of film it wants to be, and then spends 120 minutes tripping over the many lines that separate drama from comedy, cop thriller from media satire, smaller detective story versus a bigger ensemble effort. Treading these lines can sometimes work, but it never quite comes together here.
And yet, somehow, it’s still not a bad movie. Just one with a major case of the Look-At-Me-Ain’t-I-Clever? illness, an unwillingness to stick to a consistent, “appropriate” tone and a woefully ill-advised final 20 minutes that contains elements and sequences that could have worked, but falls victim to haphazard pacing and all-too-obvious satirical pokes. This is what happens when a writer/director (John Herzfeld), coming off of a fierce cult hit (Two Days In The Valley), goes a little too far up his own ass, thanks to an increased budget and a slew of Hollywood Yes Men. It’s difficult to penalize a film for trying too hard, especially since I’d rather a film be ambitious than lazy, but here it is; a film undone by having eyes bigger than its stomach.
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
Despite my misgivings about the overall effect of this film, my memory of seeing it in 2001 was far harsher than the film I watched two days ago. It’s an okay flick, middle of the road, and I can appreciate its reach even if I think it hasn’t a clue as to how to make its points with any kind of grace. It’s well acted, competently shot and has sequences powerful enough that, despite my remembered disliking of the film, have stuck into that back part of my brain that also holds plot points from old Grey’s Anatomy episodes. And, if nothing else, I will always remember how genuinely surprised I was at the bloody ousting of a major character just over halfway into the film. (While I do believe that once a film has reached its fifth anniversary, it’s fair game on spoilers, I’d hate to ruin it for anybody at all interested in checking this film out.)
But characters careen in and out of the film whenever Herzfeld seems to get bored, and while this is amusing strictly from a “let’s see how big this movie can get” view, it murders the plot of the film. By the time we are following every single story beat of the Eastern European antagonists (who from here on out will be referred to as “the goons”), the politics between the police force and the fire department, the politics between the police force and the tabloid journalism world (represented by an underused and apparently bored Kelsey Grammer), the personal/romantic lives of Fleming and Warsaw, the struggles of Czech illegal immigrants (represented by an impish Vera Farmiga), high-class escort services (represented by an Afrikaans-speaking Charlize Theron in a quick cameo), and the theories of fame, celebrity and performance inherent in the actual, central homicide plot, it all becomes too much. And this is all on Herzfeld, because an even harsher edit to both the screenplay and the finished film would have fixed many of the problems, a suggestion I rarely tend to offer.
I like his previous film Two Days In The Valley a lot. I really do. I had the poster in my bedroom for a while as a teenager. (The image of a half-naked Charlize didn’t hurt either.) But each time I watch it, I notice more and more that there’s just too much going on in it. And there is, even more so, just too much going on in 15 Minutes. I hate it when people say this — it often implies that a film cannot possibly reach the depth of a novel — but this would make a better book than a movie if Herzfeld were truly interested in saying something huge with this film.
Yes, I am, on the surface, exposing a major contradictory attitude within myself. But hear me out. Moviewise, this should have been cut down considerably. But were this a novel, I would ask for major expansions to everything, allowing the narrative a bit more room to occur organically. I think my biggest problem comes with how the goons are handled. As I’m sure Herzfeld had in his head before he wrote it down, the goons could have come across as chilling and memorable villains if written and played right, but ultimately they just come off as impulsive and goofy. Look at the logline at the top of this review, then come back down here. That logline is technically a little misleading, as the goons do not set out to conquer American culture so much as stumble upon it. The first two murders they commit are mistakes, and the sillier, more buffoonish goon just happened to have stolen a video camera earlier and is now obsessed with filming everything. And the buffoonish goon isn’t filming everything to make a cultural point — he just really likes movies, especially Frank Capra ones. It isn’t until around halfway through the film, after they just happen to watch a couple trashy Springer-like shows on television that point out America’s obsession with crime, that they realize they could become famous with their tapes, plead insanity, sell their story rights and become celebrities.
That’s sloppy. And it’s unworthy of how much time the story spends following the goons. Imagine how a novel (or even a miniseries) could have better handled this story and, more importantly, allowed Herzfeld to rethink what it is he truly wanted to say.
This film wants to occupy a middle ground between these two methods of storytelling, and I don’t think I understood as clearly in 2001 why this is a bad, although not terrible, position in which a film can find itself. Herzfeld comes from a background of writing and directing many schlocky television movies, and just like with Daniel Minahan, the writer/director of last week’s Series 7, this history informs the film in question. But Minahan was looking toward the future, while Herzfeld was hopelessly looking toward the past.
-Halfway through the film, there’s a last-ditch attempt at giving Fleming an emotional subplot, revealing that his girlfriend is the same newscaster we’ve been seeing throughout the film on TV and at crime scenes, and that he wants to propose to her, even going so far as to learn a few sentences in Greek. (As the newscaster is played by Melina Kanakaredes). But it’s too little too late, and would have been far more at home in the first 30 minutes instead of spending most of the time with the goons.
-The scene where Fleming has to fend off the goons, while strapped to a chair, flailing around, jumping on them repeatedly and firing a gun backwards with bound hands, is a comedic highlight.
-I enjoy that I can watch a scene in this movie and say, “No! If your apartment is on fire, don’t smash open the windows in the next room, because that lets in the oxygen and fire needs oxygen and you’ll die. I learned that from Backdraft!”
-Sweet. There’s Anton Yelchin as a crying child in a burning building. He’s even tinier than normal. And overacting like crazy.
-I really enjoy the end credits music. Very 1980s cop drama vibe.
-The New Line Ifinifilm DVD comes with a couple mid-length, informative documentaries on tabloid television culture and the sensationalism of criminals. They include interviews with such people as Maury Povich and Sally Jesse Raphael. One of these docs is more interesting than the entire two-hour film.
-On Jerry Springer: “I do not do those kinds of shows. Did I come perilously close to it at one time? Yes. I admit. You see, it’s a race, and you’re only as good as your last rating. And it’s very easy to get a rating by being exploitive.” — Sally Jesse Raphael
-There’s a great deleted scene where the buffoonish goon basically throws two naked women at Warsaw then runs half-naked across Times Square and into a theatre showing Two Days In The Valley. It was too silly to include, but it hints at a tone that might have worked had the whole movie been at this pitch. As it stands, the movie is too gruesome for its humor to come across, too humorous for the violence to truly sink in, and so obsessed with scrambling to make its point in the final 20 minutes that characters start acting like plot points.
-The Infinifilm DVD of this, in addition to the short documentaries on tabloid culture, also includes all of the goon’s videos from the film. Indeed, the entire experience of the DVD itself is more of a work of art than the movie itself. In …fact, you could lose the film, add fake news reports (maybe a 24-hour cycle), put in fake dossiers and articles one could scan through, and maybe even follow the cops in real time (including what they do when they’re not on the case), and you now have an installation for a modern art gallery. Where’s my arts grant?