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Friday, June 25, 1999

Lost opportunity of the disco daze

If there were ever a high-water mark of hedonism, it would have to have been located at some New York or L.A. disco in the late '70s. In this pre-AIDS, post-Pill era of guilt-free sex, drug use was widespread and largely tolerated, gay culture was coming out of the closet and sexual mores were loosening up to include all sorts of delicious possibilities, most of which seemed at the time like good ideas. The discos were ground zero of this explosion of debauchery, their intoxicating sound and sweaty flesh both absorbing and increasing these new appetites.

What brought about this carnal moment in time, what did it mean and why has it faded into memory? Was this hedonism the pinnacle of absolute freedom, or absolute irresponsibility? Did the discos represent a democratic glamour, where celebrity was available to anyone who could dance, dress, deal or diddle their way into the club? Or were they bastions of fashion fascism, where looks and money could sneer and strut in their palaces of narcissism, safe from the lumpen?

These are all questions worth addressing, but they're mostly ignored by "54," director Mark Christopher's ode to the notoriously decadent disco of '70s Manhattan. Imagine "Boogie Nights" without the humor or insight, or "Saturday Night Fever" without the dance moves and soundtrack, and you'd be getting close to this blown opportunity. Christopher gives us nothing more than superficial fashion nostalgia, wedded to a predictable rise-and-fall story arc that is as mind-numbing as the mountains of coke being spooned up the disco denizens' noses.

The script of "54" runs on auto-pilot: Bored Jersey dude Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe) finds himself lured by the bright lights and nubile starlets of Studio 54, and has the body and looks to gain access and a prestigious bartending job. Shane becomes one of the disco's connected insiders, moving within an elite clique that proffers easy access to money, drugs, sex and that most powerful aphrodisiac of all, celebrity. As is typical with such films, however, the good times have barely begun when our hero is thrown onto a downward spiral of addiction, betrayal, debasement and death. Ho-hum.

The film does start off well: The feeling of bewilderment and exhilaration that Shane feels upon first entering Studio 54 -- complete sensory overload with sex in every corner -- is captured with flair. (His discombobulation, as he stands dazed under the strobe lights, is conveyed humorously when he reacts to a smokin' dance floor by screaming "Whoo!" as if he were at a Black Sabbath concert.)

It also looks good: Phillippe has the right kind of ambisexual looks for the role, as appealing to gay sensibilities as straight. The tacky-but-chic glitz of Studio 54 is re-created in all its spangled, flesh-baring, laser-lit glory, including the famous man-in-the-moon with a nose-candy spoon.

The film does have some historical value, though, Christopher gets so tied down in the particulars that his central characters remain bland meat puppets. Shane's roommates and romantic rivals Greg and Anita (Breckin Meyer and Selma Hayek) remain poorly sketched, while the subplot of the disco-till-she-drops granny is terribly maudlin. The film also never captures the group-ecstacy of the dance floor, so central to the clubbing experience. And what to make of the fact that on two CDs worth of soundtrack material, there is not even one Donna Summer track? Heresy.

Particularly regrettable was the film's piss-poor attempt at moralizing: Shane (now calling himself Shane 54) finally hooks up with his fantasy starlet Julie Black (Neve Campbell), only to find out she's from the Jersey 'burbs too. They bond in a bowling alley while unconvincingly decrying Studio 54's superficiality, and whining how small-town life was so much better than sexual favors and fame; bulls**t has rarely been spread so thickly.

The one exception to this dire bunch of characters is Mike Myers, who plays the disco's flamboyant owner Steve Rubell in all his coke-fueled, bitchy glory, rolling around on a bed covered in cash, and soliciting sexual favors from his staff. They should have made it his film.

"54" is not so bad as a snapshot of a particularly excessive moment in time, but Travolta's "Fever" has more of the spirit of the era just in the wiggle in his hips.

"Moonlight Drive" (original title: "Clay Pigeons") starts off ridiculously enough: Two rednecks, Earl and Clay, are downing brews and discharging firearms in the middle of nowhere, when Earl accuses Clay of sleeping with his wife. With his gun trained on his suspect friend, Earl does what any of us would do -- he shoots himself stone cold dead so the cops will blame his friend.

Brilliant, huh? Maybe, just maybe, since he was drinking Coors, we could buy that he's stupid enough to actually do something like that. After such a preposterous beginning, it's hard to imagine this getting any worse, but it does. Surviving redneck Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) disposes of dead Earl, and then tries to ignore his hot-to-trot widow, Amanda (Georgina Cates), since the cops are still suspicious. She gets jealous and puts a bullet in the back of Clay's new gal, and then convinces Clay to go along with the crime.

Next thing you know ol' Clay makes a new friend at the local saloon, an affable baby-faced cowboy named Lester (Vince Vaughn), and surprise, surprise, he turns out to be a serial killer! And then he puts a knife in Amanda's back while they're making love -- a scene set "ironically" to a rockabilly tune, in an all-too-obvious rip from Tarantino.

Aside from the fact that I'm absolutely sick to death of serial killer flicks -- the filmmakers concept of last resort, second only in prevalence to cop movies -- this is still a depressingly hackneyed and slipshod thriller. Director David Dobkin made his name in video and commercial work and it shows: lots of flashy stylistic moves that call attention to themselves, and absolutely no content or impact on an emotional level.

Joaquin Phoenix ("To Die For," "U-Turn") is usually pretty damn watchable no matter what he's doing, but he's got nothing to work with here. His character has no personality whatsoever: Silent and sullen, all he does is react to the nut-cases he's surrounded by. Vince Vaughn meanwhile is well over the top, playing his buddy-from-hell like a cross between his lounge lizard in "Swingers" and his turn as Norman Bates in Gus van Sant's recent re-make of "Psycho."

This sort of feverish Texas-noir was recently attempted, with much greater wit, flair and audacity, by Oliver Stone in "U-Turn." Rent that instead of what-seeing "U-turn" or "moonlight Dive" and save yourself the price of a movie ticket.

"54" opens tomrorrow at Yebisu Garden Cinema. "Moonlight Drive" opens tomorrow at Cinema Rise.

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