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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001

Yo, what's with this Dostoevski?

Crime + Punishment in Suburbia

Rating: * * *
Director: Rob Schmidt
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Ever since director Amy Heckerling scored a hit with "Clueless," the 1995 film that transplanted Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" into a Southern California high school, we've seen any number of contemporary teen-movie reworkings of classic literature. From "Othello" ("O") to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" ("Cruel Intentions"), they just keep coming, proving that film producers love nothing so much as an idea that's already been market-tested.

News photo
Monica Keena and Vincent Kartheiser in "Crime + Punishment in Suburbia"

The latest exercise in modern classicism to hit the big screen is "Crime + Punishment in Suburbia," and it goes even further than most in adapting its source material. Thus, Feodor Dostoevski's anti-hero Raskolnikov is re-imagined as Roseanne Skolnik (Monica Keena), a high-school cheerleader and queen of the "in crowd" who's enduring a dysfunctional home life. Unlike in the novel, her crime here will be one of passion; like the novel, she will have to deal with the gnawing guilt that follows.

Despite her good looks, hunky football hero boyfriend, Jimmy (James DeBello), and social status, Roseanne's life is a bomb waiting to detonate. She doesn't see that coming, but we do, through the eyes of Vincent (Vincent Kartheiser), a geeky Goth loner who stalks Roseanne, taking secret photos of her (shades of "American Beauty"). Like all the characters in this film, Vincent is a bit of a jumble: He claims to love Roseanne and speaks of the redemptive power of Christ, but he also jacks off to the photos he's taking. Needless to say, she avoids him until there's no one left to turn to.

Roseanne's life unravels with her parents' marriage. Cynical and sour dinner-table conversations (again, "American Beauty") let us know that all is not well in the house of Skolnik. When Roseanne's mom, Maggie (Ellen Barkin), starts having an affair with bartender Chris (Jeffrey Wright), dad (Michael Ironside), who's an alcoholic, goes off the deep end. Maggie moves out, telling her daughter, "You have to be an adult now," while basically leaving her in the wolf's lair, with her abusive father who's now madder than ever. As he stalks Maggie and unloads on Roseanne, it's clear somebody is going to wind up dead, the only question is who.

"Crime + Punishment" is least interesting as it follows the resulting murder and trial. And an indie film in which a gloomy loner lands a total fox is all too predictable. Of course I wouldn't want to live in a world where misfits are denied a happy ending, but it takes a sharper eye -- someone like Todd Solondz or Terry Zwigoff -- to move beyond the easy certitudes about social misfits.

But while the movie's main storyline is strictly drive-thru, director Rob Schmidt has a lot of interesting stuff happening on the periphery. Find your pleasures in the details, like the moment of pure attraction when Maggie's and Chris' eyes meet as she's wiping a spilled shake off his lap, or the look of dopey confusion on Jimmy's face as a man-to-man talk with Roseanne's father turns into an embarrassingly bitter drunken ramble. Even more fundamental is the sheer attractiveness of the leads: With his ivory skin and laconic demeanor, Kartheiser looks to be the next big pretty boy, while Keena seems so ripe she's about to burst in almost every scene.

Schmidt tries hard to give the film a "look," and it works in spurts: A high-school pep rally is shot and cut chaotically to suggest the mad, violent energy that underlines these kids' lives. But too much of his style is that "edgy," cut-up look that recalls soft-drink and footwear commercials. The frequent use of imagery cut to alterna-rock makes it all seem even more MTV, which I guess puts it in sync with its youth demographic.

Indeed, Schmidt obviously remembers what it's like being a teenager: the aimless car rides, the furtive drinking, the intense restlessness, the hesitancy of desire when it's mixed with real love. There's a good film in there lurking around the Dostoevski themes; maybe next time Schmidt will allow himself the freedom to follow his own ideas.

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