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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Kalifornia’: A Violent Journey in Bad Company

TIMES FILM CRITIC

While it’s hard to remember any groundswell of demand for yet another trendy, high-gloss movie depicting in graphic detail the grisly doings of a serial killer, someone must have asked for one, or else why would “Kalifornia” (citywide) be around, messing up an otherwise nice day?

Maybe it’s because screenwriter Tim Metcalfe didn’t want to be pigeonholed as one of the co-authors of “Revenge of the Nerds.” Or because director Dominic Sena didn’t want to be stuck in music videos forever. Or because stars and real-life couple Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis wanted something they could act in together. Whatever the reason, “Kalifornia” is here and that is not a cause for celebration.

Set in an unnamed Atlanta-like Southern city, “Kalifornia” is narrated by Brian Kessler (David Duchovny), a writer who thinks nobody knows the trouble serial killers have seen. “They have minds of children, the answer is research and treatment, not imprisonment,” he says, practically with tears in his eyes. Naturally, Brian’s pals think his elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.

Brian’s girlfriend is Carrie Laughlin (Louise Brooks look-alike Michelle Forbes), a sultry photographer who is partial to black underwear and explicit pictures that are too out-there for the local galleries. Infected with terminal ennui, she wants more than anything to get out of town.

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Wait, says Brian. Remember that book contract I have on serial killers? Why don’t we drive to California and stop along the way at sites of famous mass murders? You’ll take your provocative photographs and I’ll babble pseudo-profundities like “serial killers live their whole lives somewhere between dreams and reality” into my tape recorder. Won’t we have fun?

Carrie agrees with as much enthusiasm as her ennui will permit. The only problem is that they can’t afford the gas for the trip. So Brian puts a “riders wanted” sign on a local bulletin board, and Early Grayce (Pitt), another man looking for a change, pulls it off and answers it.

Early, his name will inform you, is not a member of the with-it class. Looking like a young and restless Gabby Hayes, he is an ex-con who lives in a rancid trailer park with his violent temper and waitress girlfriend Adele Corners (Lewis), a simple soul who keeps pet cacti in her purse.

Hard as it is to believe, these four merrily set out together for California in Brian’s ’61 Lincoln. Carrie takes a strong dislike to Early, who has the disconcerting habit of simultaneously leering and cleaning his feet at the table, but Brian, fascinated by the way “Early lived in the moment,” tells her she has nothing to worry about. Right.

Not only are none of these characters particularly fun to be with, but the inevitable violence that enters their lives is strong and unpleasant. Director Sena and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli have given “Kalifornia” (understandably rated R for strong violence, and for sexuality and language) a slick and stylish look but that doesn’t make the encroaching mayhem any easier to take.

Lewis and Pitt are two of the best young actors around, but in this film they have gotten lost in a welter of thick accents and cross-cultural slumming. Without a strong hand guiding them, their performances seem mannered and even a trifle repetitive.

Revisiting territory that everything from “Badlands” to the recent “Guncrazy” have worked to better effect, “Kalifornia” appears convinced it is saying something profound or funny or both. Serial killers, it seems, are not the only folks operating under very serious delusions.

‘Kalifornia’

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Brad Pitt: Early Grayce

Juliette Lewis: Adele Corners

David Duchovny: Brian Kessler

Michelle Forbes: Carrie Laughlin

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A Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation, produced by Propaganda Films in association with Kouf Bigelow Productions, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Dominic Sena. Producers Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Aris McGarry. Executive producers Mitchell Kuhn, Jim Kouf, Lynn Bigelow. Screenplay Tim Metcalfe. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Editor Martin Hunter. Costumes Kelle Kutsugeras. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Michael White. Art director Jeff Mann. Set decorator Kate Sullivan. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong violence, and for sexuality and language).


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