Movie review: 'Party Monster'

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1 1/2 stars (out of 4)

"Party Monster" comes on with the uninhibited glee of boys dressing up in their mothers' clothes to play house, and it boasts a similar level of sophistication. It's a glammed-up, winking, post-modern biopic of sorts: the fancifully told true-life tale of New York "club kid" Michael Alig, who notoriously murdered drug dealer Angel Melendez in 1996.

Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, best known for the humorously sympathetic documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," have covered this material before, in the 1998 documentary also called "Party Monster." Now they've recrafted it as their dramatic-film debut, with Macaulay Culkin playing Michael, and Seth Green playing Michael's "celebutante" mentor, James St. James, whose memoir, "Disco Bloodbath," provided the basis for both films.

These are flamboyant characters -- scene-makers who attracted flashbulbs through elaborate getups that often incorporated cross-dressing and gore -- and rather than recording their exploits soberly, Bailey and Barbato try to match their subjects' attention-getting fervor. James and Michael talk into the camera and argue over whose movie this really is. James is in control until a drug overdose allows Michael to seize the microphone, as chirpy music plays on cue. Later, a key bit of narration is provided by a guy in a rat costume.

Self-referential storytelling isn't necessarily a no-no -- it works in "American Splendor," which is about a man who has created alternate versions of his life in comic books -- but here, the cheeky in-joking just comes across as arch. For one, you're constantly aware that Culkin and Green are giving performances rather than inhabiting actual people, and you can't shake the feeling that their idea of playing "gay" is to affect fey mannerisms.

Green's artifice is more forgivable because he's funny. James, a club-scene fixture who schools Michael in the art of being fabulous, may be stereotypically swishy and dishy, but the diminutive actor plays him with such relish -- with cunning eyes and a doofy, low-pitched chuckle -- that he's magnetic. When he's off screen, the movie suffers a palpable energy drop.

As for Culkin, his first "adult" role isn't such a stretch from his later kid ones; it's like "The Good Son" gone glam. Michael is a self-made showman, moving up from nightclub janitor to promoter through sheer tenacity, mental note-taking and force of personality, not that you get much sense of one.

Rather than being embarrassed about flooding a club during a disastrously attended party, he convinces the owner, Peter Gatien (Dylan McDermott with an eye patch), to let him promote even more outrageous shows. "You'll love me, I promise," Michael tells Peter, who for some reason is convinced. We never are.

A sneer is rarely absent from Michael's face, and Culkin gives little sense of anything going on beneath the surface. Not helping is that Bailey and Barbato have Michael express what are supposed to be his innermost feelings anyway. The character shouldn't need to state "I just want to be loved" for us to get the idea.

So instead of being a comic and tragic figure -- like Gary Oldman's Sid Vicious in "Sid and Nancy" -- Michael is just the center of a freak show, one that includes Chloe Sevigny as his fellow druggie/sort-of girlfriend Gitsie, Marilyn Manson as a transvestite waste product named Christina, Wilmer Valderrama as Michael's airy deejay boyfriend Keoki, and Wilson Cruz as Angel, who always looks resentful at not being included in Michael's inner circle, though we're not sure why.

That's because Bailey and Barbato fail to make this decadence look fun. The club scene should be seductive to us viewers, not just to those drug addicts on screen. The movie's most ebullient scene has James leading Michael around a shabby diner in a demonstration of how to make an effective party appearance. You can't help but laugh with them (particularly Green).

But most of the time "Party Monster" is just a standard excess-is-dangerous tale coated in garish lip gloss. Its flip mixture of camp and violence is more grating than groundbreaking, and the movie actually comes across as squeamish regarding its lead characters' sexuality; the gay Michael's only on-screen kiss is with Gitsie, and James might as well be celibate.

In the end you don't believe what you're watching, and you don't care. This party is a drag.

"Party Monster"
Written and directed by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato; photographed by Teodoro Maniaci; edited by Jeremy Simmons; production designed by Andrea Stanley; music by Jimmy Harry; produced by Jon Marcus, Bradford Simpson, Christine Vachon. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday, Sept. 5. Running time: 1:38. No MPAA rating (drug use, violence, sexual content).
Michael Alig -- Macaulay Culkin
James St. James -- Seth Green
Gitsie -- Chloe Sevigny
Brooke -- Natasha Lyonne
Keoki -- Wilmer Valderrama
Angel -- Wilson Cruz

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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