Johnny, the scroungy hero of Mike Leigh's powerful and disturbing "Naked," burns in your throat all the way down. He's the human equivalent of indigestion, a protagonist as bitter as they come.
He bites on everybody, from his old girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp) to her stoner roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). Caustic and clever, he throws words around like poison darts, and any nearby target will do, as long as it's breathing.
Johnny (in an evisceratingly frank performance by David Thewlis) is also cute in the bedroom. He likes it rough and tends to pummel the women who welcome him into their arms. The 1993 movie (screening Friday night as part of UC Irvine's "Global Fishbowl" series) opens with Johnny enjoying sadistic sex with a pickup in an alley. She's left frantic and crying; that's the usual result of his lovemaking.
What's fascinating about this 27-year-old British loser is that Leigh makes him more than just a baldly despicable symbol of misogyny. During the narrative's three days, in which Johnny mostly roams London's mean streets shot by cinematographer Dick Pope as if they're an upper floor of the sewer, he befriends a few strangers and shows flashes of compassion.
His fleetingly good impulses are overcome, though, by his self-hatred (he regularly says things like "I see my life as an open grave"), which, unfortunately for the women he encounters, is turned against any female who tries to find intimacy with him.
"Naked"--a revealing title not only because of its explicit sexuality, but also for its stripped-away look at a segment of urban life--can be funny, believe it or not. That comes from Johnny's wit, an acid bath that dissolves all pretense and niceties.
Even when Johnny is sarcastic as hell, he skewers with humor. Credit Leigh's sharp writing, but praise is also due the almost emaciated Thewlis for giving a much-needed degree of black comedy to Johnny's distaste for most things human.
But "Naked," despite its shrewdness, is at heart a bleak, pessimistic movie. Johnny's M.O. is always to exploit and manipulate the goodness that Leigh finds at the heart of the women Johnny stumbles upon, and that makes them little more than easy victims. Men are cruel and women are stupid--if you read the film simply, that's all you might take from "Naked."
You might even be left with creepier notions after Jeremy (the sneering Greg Cruttwell) enters the scene. A wealthy landlord who's truly evil, he makes Johnny seem a nice guy in comparison. He could teach Johnny a thing or two about abusing the weak. The audience hates him, right off the bat.
And that goes to the center of "Naked's" potency. It gets us to react, with passion and thoughtfulness. Through its uncompromising awareness of the ugliness of some people, the movie is ultimately a warning.
How do we avoid monsters like that? How do we avoid becoming one ourselves? Warnings, by their nature, are exciting and often valuable, which describes "Naked" perfectly.
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What: Mike Leigh's "Naked."
When: Friday, March 3, at 7 and 9 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road, head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road, and take it into the campus.
Wherewithal: $2 to $4.
Where to call: (714) 824-5588.