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MOVIE REVIEW : Bogosian’s ‘Sex, Drugs’ Doesn’t Flinch

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Like a malevolent Santa Claus, Eric Bogosian has got a little list, one that focuses on those who’ve been naughty, not those who’ve been nice. An apocalyptic comic artist with a finely honed sense of the absurd, Bogosian has an unflinching eye for moral evasion and hypocrisy, for the lies we tell each other and ourselves. As a stage monologuist, he is pretty much in a class by himself, which makes it a pity that the film version of his latest collection of vignettes, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” does not do him all the justice he deserves.

Not that everyone didn’t try. Bogosian’s longtime producer Frederick Zollo was in charge here and hired John McNaughton, a very hip filmmaker (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”) with a sensibility every bit as forbidding as Bogosian’s, to direct. Boston’s Wilbur Theater was rented for two weeks and three cameras recorded every move Bogosian made.

His show, which played at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this summer, is a bracingly ruthless and abrasive one. In a series of 10 interlocking monologues, using minimal props and only a change of shirts, Bogosian introduces us to a group of urban characters who pretty much live, with varying degrees of ardor, for sex, drugs and rock music.

There is, for openers, the subway panhandler in search of medication who announces matter-of-factly, “This is the situation: I need your money.” The rehabed rock star turned Just Say No spokesman who graciously admits, “The problem with drugs is, you’re having such a good time, you don’t realize what a bad time you’re having.” The sexual predator who coolly insists, “I’m endowed. I got what everybody wants.” And, in one of the performance’s longest and most accurately observed monologues, the muscle-shirted Italian guy from the neighborhood who treats his friend Louie to one hell of a bachelor party.

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Accurate observation is, in fact, one of the keys to Bogosian’s success. He knows his cast of characters absolutely, his ear for the varying rhythms and nuances of urban speech is impeccable, and his talent as a performer is such that he is able to inhabit and animate each of his people in turn.

But Bogosian’s greatest asset is his refusal to flinch, either at the monstrousness of some of his creations or at the even more awful fact that these folks may be fairly amusing to the casual eye as well. His best monologues are scabrous, unnerving, in your face, but somehow funny. Getting us to both laugh and shudder at this audacious howl about civilization and its discontents is Bogosian’s method of dealing deal with the madness he describes.

Given all of this, “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” (at the Nuart, rated R for strong sex-related language and drug references) ought to be a vivid, unforgettable piece of work. That it is less than that is due to a fundamental misperception of the Bogosian experience and how to best transfer it to film.

Essentially, the filmmakers have decided to emphasize the theatrical-performance aspects of his monologues, keeping the camera almost always at a middle distance and, perhaps fearful that folks wouldn’t know enough to laugh if they didn’t, retaining every chuckle from all those Wilbur performances on the soundtrack.

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While that may sound like the best way to preserve the ambience of the original, it turns out to be nothing of the sort.

With a performer of Bogosian’s intensity, someone who specializes in putting you in the presence of frightening characters, one-to-one interaction is essential. And the best way to translate that to the screen would be to eliminate, as least as far as the soundtrack goes, the theatrical audience.

If you don’t, you destroy Bogosian’s carefully contrived illusion that he is confronting you with a series of very real people. And in effect you also defang him, turning his very dangerous art into a kind of cocktail-party palaver that it is safe to titter at from a distance. And being a safe distance from Eric Bogosian is the last place it makes sense to be.

As for the much ballyhooed addition of director McNaughton, his presence has added little to the proceedings other than a baffling preference for distant camera placements and a very few close-ups of things like cigarettes that end up being more irritating than anything else. While the impulse on all sides not to tart up Bogosian’s work is an understandable, even laudable one, no one seems to have realized what a disservice was being done to the material by seeming not to do anything at all. Bogosian’s power survives these choices, and he is obviously worth seeing in any form, but it is a pity this film couldn’t make him flourish.

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‘Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll’

Released by Avenue Pictures. Director John McNaughton. Producer Frederick Zollo. Executive producer Carey Brokow. Co-producers Steven A. Jones, Llewellyn Wells. Screenplay Eric Bogosian. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Editor Elena Maganini. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong sex-related language and drug references).


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