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Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Scary monsters and super creeps
It's a difficult trick indeed to be all things to all people, but "Party Monster" -- the rollicking account of NYC club-kid-turned-killer Michael Alig -- comes pretty damn close. If you savor ridiculously over-the-top camp, hyper-bitchy queens, exaggerated affectations, and unbridled drug 'n' disco-fueled hedonism, then this is definitely the film for you.
Even if you are of the opinion that all too many clubbers are superficial, childish E-tards with bad taste in music and worse taste in fashion, well, this is the film for you, too.
"Party Monster" will confirm your likes or dislikes, just don't expect it to change your mind. This is a film, after all, where the No. 1 rule for its drag queen lead is: "Perception is reality." As such, stereotypes are reinforced, not challenged.
Like this: innocent small-town boy corrupted by those big-city lights. "Party Monster's" story arc follows Michael Alig from his drug-free, slightly outed gay innocence upon his arrival in late-'80s NYC, through his rise as an egomaniacal and flamboyant party promoter and camp superstar, and his final crash as a crack-addled psychopath in 1996, viciously murdering a friend -- bashing his head in and then injecting him with Drano just to make sure -- in an argument over drugs and money.
It's a familiar swan-dive to anyone who's seen films like "Boogie Nights" or "54," but as a study in excess, it's hard to beat.
The club scene centered around Alig featured a kind of mutant drag as re-imagined by Peter Max and Herschell Gordon Lewis on a particularly messy ketamine trip: a guy in a giant chicken suit alongside a green-faced witch-nosed "drug troll" and a silver-winged angel. It's also got the benefit of being a (reasonably) true story, based on the ain't-glam-hell memoir "Disco Bloodbath," by Alig confidante and rival James St. James.
As the movie makes clear from the outset, St. James was Queen Bee of flaming camp divas on the NYC club scene until Alig came along, and he never quite forgave his protege for eclipsing him. As St. James says at the film's start, "I was stuck playing the sidekick in a sick and twisted buddy movie." Well, it's payback time and then some in "Party Monster," as St. James and Alig struggle for control of the narrative, literally, both on-screen and in the voiceover, but with St. James coming out on top (by default, as Alig self-destructs).
The casting was sheer brilliance, and perhaps the film's most intriguing aspect. Macaulay Culkin, in his first role in nine years (since the abominable "Richie Rich") was a perfect choice to play Alig. Aside from the fact that he's able to wear lederhosen and lipstick with ease, his very presence and all the baggage it brings -- things like his friendship with Michael Jackson -- give a perfectly creepy edge of messed-up childhood to the character. Seth Green, meanwhile, retains the petulance from his "Austin Powers" character Scott, but otherwise re-invents himself, able to sashay into a club in a red glitter wig and blue face paint with a "look at me, losers" haughtiness that would impress even Madonna. While Culkin seems to have lifted his vocal phrasings from vintage Vivien Leigh ("Come, James, we'll take our tea in the bedroom"), Green has studied snider, bitchier queens. Nobody delivers a put-down on-screen better than this: "Michael was growing on me . . . like a fungus."
The film chronicles the rise and fall of Alig's Disco 2000 parties, which also reversed the fortunes of NYC club The Limelight. Club owner Peter Gatien (Dylan McDermott) is set-up in a kind of surrogate-father-figure Freudian thing vis-a-vis the needy Alig, but this aspect is not as interesting as the St. James/Alig rivalry. Other characters drift into Alig's inner circle of attention-seekers and dope-heads: drooling drag hag Christina (Marilyn Manson), wannabe superstar and dealer Angel (Wilson Cruz), boyfriend and up-and-coming DJ Keoki (Wilmer Valderrama), and Texas outcast girlfriend Gitsie (Chloe Sevigny).
"Party Monster" eventually settles into a parable on the dangers of believing your own hype. Alig was a guy who couldn't ever handle his 15 minutes of fame graciously. Put him on a national tabloid-TV show, and he'd be dissing his own friends within two minutes. For all his supposed charms, we never warm to him as a person: The Club Kids prided themselves on their superficiality and the film rarely cracks that surface. Alig's great romance with Gitsie, for example, is born of this passionate response when she meets him backstage at a club: "I can't believe I just saw you on TV!" We never really care about Alig, and that deadens our response when the film moves into its tragic phase, but as a biting send-up of the modern American infatuation with fame -- and its close cousin notoriety -- file this one next to "To Die For."