Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Chumscrubber

If films truly reflect reality, then boy, do we need to get out of the suburbs. The lifestyle for so many in the Western world appears by all accounts to be driving us slowly insane. Taken seriously, a film like The Chumscrubber is another warning bell, about the perils of sacrificing our inner selves to conform to society's demand for an immaculate veneer of perfection and happiness. Taken not so seriously, The Chumscrubber is a mildly satirical take on previous films of that ilk - think The Ice Storm or American Beauty. The trouble is, it's not quite sure which one of these it wants to be. So while it has a magnificent cast, with some nice performances and interesting moments, I found myself wondering what its real purpose is.

The film is set in the southern Californian town of Hillside, one of those centrally planned communities that are supposed to be almost like resort living but somehow feel like minimum security prisons. Dean (Jamie Bell) is a classic anti-hero - the loner high school student with an addiction to feel-good pills, a psychiatrist father (William Fichtner) who just wants to mine him for material for his books, and a mother (Alison Janney) too busy selling vitamins and playing happy housewife to notice her son's pent-up rage. When his only friend and school drug dealer Troy commits suicide, three of Dean's classmates demand he find Troy's stash for them, kidnapping his brother as an incentive. Only they nab the wrong kid, whose mother Terri (Rita Wilson) is too preoccupied with her upcoming wedding to the increasingly unstable local mayor (Ralph Fiennes) to notice her son is missing. Meanwhile Troy's mother (Glenn Close) is dealing with the death of her son by magnanimously telling all her neighbours personally that she in no way blames them.

There's a few other characters and stories through the film, but to list them would take all day. And that's one of the problems with The Chumscrubber, as it often is with large ensemble cast/interweaving storyline films. Keeping track of the various storylines isn't that hard, but there's so much potential in the stories, I wonder if a better film would have jettisoned some of the lesser characters to focus more on the main ones. Then again, two hours watching Dean's white-boy angst amid the macho bravura of his fellow teens may have become somewhat tedious.

There are some nice moments and touching performances - some critics have labelled Glenn Close's performance as robotic as her turn in The Stepford Wives, but I thought she was heart-wrenching as a Mom wracked by the guilt of not truly knowing her son, and having to keep up a brave face to the neighbours. It was madness hidden behind a plastered-on smile. Similarly, I enjoyed Ralph Fiennes' as the Mayor, who after a head knock has begun seeing dolphins everywhere. He's a bit wacky to be sure, but it's a nice gear change to all the suburban angst.

There's also the issue of the Chumscrubber itself - the title of a headless videogame character that appears on posters and T-shirts throughout the film. No doubt it's a reference to Frank, the 6-foot bunny rabbit from the brilliant Donnie Darko, surely the most original take on suburban life in recent memory.The problem is, the Chumscrubber isn't scary, or even spooky. It's just a bit naff, and it's introduced too late in the film to really make an impact. It's supposed to be a common link through the stories, but it didn't work for me.

If this review sounds a bit muddled, it's because the film left my mind muddled. It didn't stand up as a serious examination of everyday suburban life, but it didn't really declare itself as a black comedy. I didn't hate it, but I wouldn't recommend it as a must-see. If you haven't seen Donnie Darko, rent that out instead.

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