Tucker Max in a 'Hell' of his own making

For whatever his character flaws -- unrepentant narcissism, alcohol abuse, casual misogyny -- lack of confidence has never been a problem for Tucker Max. Just about everything the Florida-born Duke Law School grad has done to distinguish himself has fairly reeked of cocksurety.

He became a minor media sensation in his mid-20s for www.tuckermax.com, the blog he started in 2002 to chronicle his hard-core partying and post-college sexcapades. Max's tales of drinking himself into blackouts, humiliating friends and insulting women, intermingled with vivid accounts of his sexual conquests won him legions of college-age admirers as well as the attention of Hollywood TV executives who began working with Max to develop a series envisioned as "Sex and the City" for guys.

In 2006, he crafted those stories -- which originated as e-mails of the "Dude, you are not going to believe what happened to me last night!" variety -- into the memoir "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." And now the "fratire," in which Max rates women on a scale from "common-stock pig" to "super hottie" and declares himself a "professional at humiliating and 'debasing' people," has sold a million copies. It famously remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks and earned the writer a spot on Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People list for 2009.

"I stumbled into it," Max recently said of his acclaim. "Creative writing was not only not an option for me, I looked disdainfully at writers. Like, 'Get a real job!' "

"Beer in Hell's" inevitable movie adaptation arrives in theaters Friday, not coincidentally just as negative outcry against Max has taken on new proportions. Although controversy dogged him even before the book's release, sprawling debates about the writer's merits -- or complete lack thereof -- are being played out in the discussion forums of such websites as the Internet Movie Database and rottentomatoes.com, where his detractors and defenders lay siege to one another's arguments with startling passion.

Since August 2008, the snarky media watchdog website Gawker has staked a brazenly negative position on "Beer in Hell" and has labeled Max a "sad piece of nothing" and "a thug, an unimaginative punk, and, at heart, a tiny little vapor." Taking umbrage at the trailer for "Beer in Hell," a reviewer for the satirical newspaper the Onion cast a personal barb at Max, telling him: "Your movie is just like 'The Hangover' but doused in buckets of beige frat boy vomit." Meanwhile, the main thrust of the blog Tucker Max Is a Douchebag has been to discredit the factual basis of Max's stories (he maintains all are true). And as the writer has crossed the country promoting his movie at college campuses, angry protesters have disrupted appearances, accusing him of promoting a "culture of rape."

One such rally occurred at a screening on the campus of North Carolina State University last month. "Films and books like his disguise disrespect, objectification and abusive behavior toward women as comedy and try to make it culturally acceptable," said Shannon Johnson, director of the North Carolina State Women's Center. "The real problem is that it becomes mainstream to dehumanize women. That acceptance condones sexual violence to occur."

Although drunken sex abounds in both the movie and the book, depictions of rape do not. Max said he hasn't allowed the naysaying to sink in. "It impacts things on a superficial level. If protesters are at an event, we have to deal with it," said Max, reached by phone from Bloomington, Ind., where he had screened the film a night earlier. "At a core level? Not in the least. Kooks and trolls and haters are not it, man. It would be criminally stupid to spend any time sweating them."

Moreover, internalizing the criticism would take Max -- who in the book calls himself "self-absorbed to the point of psychotic delusion" -- away from his protean efforts to build consciousness for the movie. Despite having no background in film, Max not only co-wrote and produced "Beer in Hell" with his friend Nils Parker (securing its $7-million budget through Darko Films, production company of "Donnie Darko" writer-director Richard Kelly), but Max says he and Parker also issued orders to "Beer in Hell's" director, Bob Gosse ("Niagara, Niagara"), about how to block scenes, run rehearsals and even directed the actors' line readings. As well, Max made the unorthodox choice to self-distribute the movie (through for-hire Freestyle Releasing) rather than agree to a studio deal for which he would have surrendered a much higher percentage of profits. And he is almost single-handedly marketing it. Max embarked on a coast-to-coast tour, premiering "Beer in Hell" to rowdy college crowds and sticking around for bawdy Q&As; afterward. He has maintained its production blog and is spreading the gospel of "Beer in Hell" one Tweet and Facebook posting at a time.

"We don't have a safety net. If it fails, the investors lose everything and we got nothing but a . . . movie," he said. "But if it works, man! We have not just done an independent movie with a $7-million budget. We distributed it and marketed it ourselves. It's super risky, I know. But if it works, we own the movie outright."

The movie's Tucker Max is what Nietzsche might have termed a frat boy Ubermensch: a gloating manipulator and binge drinker who roams sports bar happy hours and strip clubs armed with an insatiable libido and a free-floating venom toward women -- whom he variously ogles, threatens and denigrates with an arsenal of synonyms for the word "slut." (Naturally, they find Tucker irresistible.) With his crinkly smile and lacerating wit, the character, portrayed by Matt Czuchry of "Gilmore Girls," also makes sport of bedding physically imperfect females; little people, blind, deaf and mute women are like catnip to him.

Self-described "Tucker Max super fan" Dean Salerno said he had been anticipating the movie for months and regularly checked in at its production blog. "The guy is a hero to me. The coolest person on the planet," said Salerno, 25, a graphic designer from Palo Alto. "He gives you hope: that you don't have to play by the rules and you can have fun by doing whatever the hell you want."

Playing out more as a series of ribald vignettes than a conventionally plotted movie, "Beer in Hell's" narrative arc is twofold: Tucker and his pals go off carousing, traveling to Salem, N.C., for a bachelor party. In the quest to find a strip club that permits patrons to liberally grope the dancers, the trio guzzles Herculean quantities of booze and verbally flambees every woman unlucky enough to cross their path. The real drama occurs after one of Max's friends -- the bachelor -- gets kicked out of the club; he winds up beaten and bleeding in a pile of his own vomit in the city drunk tank just days before his wedding. It's Tucker's fault, of course, and he has amends to make.

Darko Films' Sean McKittrick said he wanted to make the movie even before he became aware of Max's bestselling status or cult-of-personality-like thrall over his fans. The producer simply responded with giant belly laughs to the material. "What I loved about ['Beer in Hell'] is that it was so brash and honest and real," McKittrick said. "There's no high jinks in this movie. No suspension of disbelief to laugh at something. It's raw."

What remains to be seen is whether the controversy and negative attention surrounding Max will hinder or propel "Beer in Hell's" box-office performance. Though he claims to take none of it seriously, on the topic of his purported promotion of "rape culture," the writer grew serious. "Those people are promoting their political agenda on my back," he said. "They think the law defining consent stops when someone has a drink. If a man or woman drinks, they cannot consent to sex. Which is so preposterous, it's laughable."

Max added: "Dude, I always laugh when people call me a misogynist. I . . . love women! Everything I do is to impress women. And if I hated women, why would half my fans be women?"

In conversation, Max sounded more like a Hollywood operator with a sophisticated understanding of studio politics than the booze-sodden incarnation of male id who rampages through the pages of his stories. Asked if he had turned over a new leaf, the writer was quick to dispel the notion.

"I am still that guy in every way," he said. "I'm 33 right now, the character in the movie is 25. Ten years ago, I was like an unguided missile of drinking and debauchery. Whereas now, I'm a smart bomb of drinking and debauchery. I pick my spots and hit my targets."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 20, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction Tucker Max: An article in today's Calendar about Tucker Max and the upcoming movie based on his book, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," said that the writer appears on the 2009 Time 100, a list of influential people. Max was only a finalist for the list. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 27, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Tucker Max: An article last Sunday about Tucker Max and the upcoming movie based on his book said that the writer appears on the 2009 Time 100, a list of influential people. Max was only a finalist for the list. The story also misidentified Darko Entertainment as Darko Films.
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