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"
     Roseanne.

             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
     to recommend.


                                             Rating:        C-
© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.