Friday July 11, 1997
Director Michael Oblowitz and writer-producer Larry Gross have a tough time getting a grip on "This World, Then the Fireworks," a lurid, low-down adaptation of a story by legendary hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson. As a result, "This World" lumbers and strains too often when it should snap and crackle.
It's the late '20s and the lives of two small children, brother and sister, are blasted when their father, in your classic fit of jealous rage, takes a shotgun to his lover and her husband, a cop. He's executed for his crime, his wife, who was in the range of fire, is left with a face scarred by pellets. His son and daughter are so traumatized they form a bond so tight that it inevitably blossoms into incestuous passion and a reckless, lawless existence.
Some of the most entertaining and provocative films have resulted from inspired directors taking vintage potboiler material and managing to play it both ways, having fun with its outrageousness yet simultaneously taking it seriously. A prime example is Francois Truffaut's adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's "The Bride Wore Black," and such diverse directors as Andre Techine, R.W. Fassbinder and Brian De Palma have also gotten away with such outre ventures. But "This World" stifles in self-consciousness and ponderousness, leaving us with a screen full of improbable, nasty and uninvolving characters.
After their lives have literally been smashed to smithereens, the mother, who grows into a religious hysteric, starts drifting around the country with her two small children. As the story flashes ahead to 1956, the mother (Rue McClanahan), too weary to keep on moving, has wound up in a farmhouse adjacent to a small West Coast city. Her daughter Carol (Gina Gershon), having seen her marriage break up, has become a hooker working out of a local bar.
The son Marty (Billy Zane) has gone off to Chicago to become a hotshot crime reporter, digging up so much dirt about organized crime and its connection to political corruption that he's got to blow town. (Perhaps as some kind of punishment for his feelings for his sister, Marty has married a homely woman suffering from elephantiasis and they have an equally unattractive son.) In any event, he turns up at the home of his mother, and Marty and Carol's reunion has predictably dangerous results.
What we need at this point is the feeling we got so strongly in Leonard Kastle's classic 1970 "Honeymoon Killers": that its overweight, unhappy nurse and its small-time con man most likely would have continued to lead relatively harmless lives until they met, unleashing within each other a deadly mix of passion and evil. Marty and Carol, reunited, have this kind of impact upon each other, but "This World" doesn't really develop their relationship. The point is that if you're dealing with increasingly outrageous material and want to get away with it, you've got to be working from the firm foundation of a solid script.
Zane's Marty is convincingly brilliant and amoral, Gershon goes for an Ava Gardner look and McClanahan, always a game, accomplished actress, plays boldly against her glamorous image. Sheryl Lee, as a repressed small-town cop, is effective as one of those perfect blond '50s goddesses until she's seduced by the heartless Marty. However, except for McClanahan and Seymour Cassel as a shrewd cop, the others seem to be striking poses and assuming attitudes more than actually acting.
The picture has a fairly authentic period look and feel and a great jazzy, saxophone-heavy Pete Rugolo score too good for it. But the callow "This World" winds up a reminder of how tough it really is to pull off an authentically fatalistic neo-noir--one like Stephen Frears' marvelous Jim Thompson adaptation, "The Grifters."
If it's small-town crime and Ava Gardner you're in the mood for, you might want to pick up the "Whistle Stop" (1946) video currently on sale in many drugstore racks for a couple of bucks. It's not great, but it's the genuine article.
This World, Then the Fireworks, 1997. R, for strong violence, sexuality and language. A Metromedia Entertainment Group release of an Orion Classics and Largo Entertainment presentation of a Muse, Balzac's Shirt and Wyman production. Director Michael Oblowitz. Producers Chris Hanley, Brad Wyman, Larry Gross. Executive producer Barr Potter. Co-executive producer Billy Zane. Screenplay by Larry Gross; based on the story by Jim Thompson. Cinematographer Tom Priestley Jr. Editor Emma E. Hickox. Costumes Dan Moore. Music Pete Rugolo. Production designer Maia Javan. Art director Alison Sadler. Set decorator Chet Spier. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Billy Zane as Marty Lakewood. Gina Gershon as Carol Lakewood Wharton. Sheryl Lee as Lois Archer. Rue McClanahan as Mom Lakewood. Seymour Cassel as Police Det. Harris.