|Crime + Punishment in Suburbia
What hath Clueless wrought? Following on the heels of that film's
success, which wittily transposed Jane Austen's classic Emma to a
Beverly Hills high school, filmgoers were subjected to a string of
reinterpretations of classic literature set among the Gen-Y set: Pygmalion
became She's All That and Cyrano de Bergerac morphed into
Whatever It Takes. Even Shakespeare was not immune: The
Taming of the Shrew was reinterpreted as 10 Things I Hate About You
while Ethan Hawke depicted a slightly older slacker version of Hamlet
as well as Pip in a modern-day Great Expectations. And there's more
to come (Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Castorbridge has be re-imagined
in the American West in the upcoming The Claim, just to name one
example.) Don't misunderstand; I think that on occasion this can be an
intriguing proposition. But turning great works of art into teen movie fodder
is questionable at best.
Also, it should be no surprise that scenarists are turning to books
more readily found on a college reading list rather than seeking to craft
a new idea. After all, there's a ready-made plot structure, strong characters
and (often) great dialogue. Plus, the original author is dead so there are
no royalties and more importantly, no complaints. Having seeming
plundered from every conceivable writer, it was only a matter of time
before someone got to Russian literature. That someone was Larry Gross
who has "adapted" Dostoyevsky's seminal Crime and Punishment by
switching the location to modern-day Southern California and the sex of
the main character from male to female.
Crime + Punishment in Suburbia, which debuted at the Sundance Film
Festival, centers on Roseanne Skolnick (Monica Keena), the most popular
girl in her high school. She seemingly has it all, including a football player
boyfriend (James DeBello). Yet beneath the surface, things aren't all that
perfect. Her stepfather (Michael Ironside) is having trouble adjusting to
his new job and drinks excessively. Her mother (Ellen Barkin) seeks solace
from her unhappy marriage by going out with her friend (Conchetta Ferrell).
Roseanne also has her very own stalker, albeit a photographic one -- a
loner named Vincent (Vincent Kartheiser) who is determined to "save"
The relatively brief film (it runs 100 minutes), is divided into seven
"chapters" with provocative titles like "II. Her Mother's a Whore" and
"VII. Guilt Destroys". Director Rob Schmidt (whose previous film was
Saturn), however, succumbs to the sophomore curse. Although he
demonstrates an ability to create occasionally entrancing visuals, the
helmer has a tendency to overdo it. Several key moments are awkwardly
staged (including an integral plot point). To be fair, Gross' screenplay
doesn't help either. The intention appears to have been to create a satirical
look at life in the suburbs but American Beauty arguably got there first.
Whether intentional or not, Crime + Punishment in Suburbia plays
like a retread. It doesn't help that both films feature a young man with an
interest in photography who is obsessed with a female classmate. Where
Wes Bentley was creepily seductive in American Beauty, Vincent Kartheiser
comes across as just plain eerie. His androgynous looks play against the
character; he recounts how he was a juvenile delinquent who more or
less found some salvation in believing in God, but none of what he says
is believable, although whether any actor could have pulled it off is
arguable. Monica Keena has her moments but her performance is also
uneven. In some scenes, she barely registers: Keena drops her voice
almost to a whisper and recites her lines in a muted voice. As fans of
the TV show "Dawson's Creek" know, when given the right material,
this young actress can soar but here she merely is flapping her wings.
Of the younger players, only James DeBello manages to impress as
Roseanne's dimwitted jock boyfriend.
The adults don't fare much better either. When fine performers like
Ellen Barkin, Conchetta Ferrell, Lucinda Jenny and Jeffrey Wright barely
register on screen, there is clearly something wrong. Only Michael Ironside
as Fred Skolnick, Roseanne's drunken, loutish stepfather, manages to rise
above the material to limn a portrait of a proud man driven by anger.
Ironside attempts to inject shadings into a character that in lesser hands
would be a stock villain.
There was an intriguing idea behind Crime + Punishment in Suburbia
but the script failed to adopt the philosophical bent of the original novel
(undoubtedly deemed too heavy for the film's target audience), the direction
is haphazard and uneven, and the performers were left floundering. Except
for a terrific soundtrack -- and points have to be given to Schmidt for finding
songs that comment on the action unfolding in the scenes -- there's little
|© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.