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Saturday, April 10, 1999

'DEAD MAN'S CURVE'

Making the grade from the couch


When I think of the wealth of America, I think of its national concern for psychological well-being. People will actually set aside a number of hours each week to talk to therapists or attend group. They will go to court to demand justice for such crimes as "emotional damage" and "acute psychological stress."

Coming from a family for whom such words never existed, all this is dazzling. In my family, one was either well enough to go to work in the morning, or not. If the latter, one was seriously ill or near death, in which case one had other things to worry about.

But psychology has its drawbacks and limitations and unexpected pitfalls. So says "Dead Man's Curve," a clever spoof on analysis and how it often fails to get at the truth. The directorial debut of Dan Rosen, who also wrote the screenplay, "Dead Man's Curve" draws from a supposedly true policy most universities deploy concerning students who commit suicide.

This involves granting the students' roommates a 4.0 average, in view of his or her recent loss. They are told to take it easy, to adjust slowly and meet with the campus therapist ("I'm always here when you want to talk.") three times a week. How very nifty. Why the same policy is not applied to the army, to investment banking firms or securities companies is a mystery. College kids. They get all the breaks.

To top it off, this particular bunch are a working class stiff's worst nightmare: groomed, pampered and with gorgeous girlfriends hanging on their arms. At least Rosen wastes no time in stressing how despicable they are, and the lengths they will go to for a seat in Harvard's grad school.

Tim (Matthew Lillard) wants to be a hot-shot lawyer and pull in six figures before the age of 30. Rand (Randall Batinkoff) is from a wealthy family and Harvard has been part of his plans since birth. Chris (Michael Vartan) is a scholarship student with his heart set on an M.B.A., but lately his grades have taken a nose dive.

Though all three are equally desperate for a 4.0 average, it's Chris and Tim who want it enough to kill a friend. Two minutes into the film, and they're already plotting to stage Rand's death and become eligible for the Dead Man's Curve.

It would have been easy to sympathize with Rand had he been a more lovable kind of guy. But as things stand, he asks for it. Rand bullies pregnant girlfriend Nathalie (Tamara Craig Thomas), flings insults at Chris and generally shows himself to be Privileged White Boy at his very worst.

Still, he's an angel compared to Tim, who seems to sail through life on lies and schemes and tricks up the sleeve. It is Tim who masterminds Rand's murder and then breaks down in tears at the therapist's office: "He was my best friend!" It is Tim who spreads rumors about Chris having a hand in the fake suicide. So convincing are his emotional dramas that the campus therapist (Dana Delaney) is easily fooled. Not that this is hard: Compared to her, the guy who delivers milk for the cafeteria has more insight into student behavior.

It turns out though that the therapist has some of the best lines in the movie. When Chris asks her what the usual signs of suicide are, she chews on a pen and replies: "Listening to '80s music like Suzanne Vega, the Cure, the Smiths. Underlining passages from 'Catcher in the Rye.' Watching period and Scandinavian movies or anything by a first time director/writer. I hate those."

Such spots for chuckles are scattered throughout the movie and are a welcome respite from all the back-stabbing and double crossing that define college life for Rosen's characters.

Behind the suspense of who outsmarts everyone else to get that 4.0 is the pressure applied to the students to excel, look good and be cheerful. With so many resources for the "good life" available on campus, there's little excuse for anyone who's not in tip-top shape and feeling A-OK.

Now, is that stressful or what? To meet these high expectation levels, Nathalie has Prozac sent in by her parents. Rand has developed a drinking problem. Chris is a nervous wreck. As for Tim, his personality is twisted beyond repair.

It's a good thing I don't live in the States. The pressure to smile, be charming and feel good about myself would result in a massive coronary. No amount of therapy is likely to cure that.

"Dead Man's Curve" opens April 24 at the Cine Amuse Theater in Shibuya.


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