200 Cigarettes

      Nostalgia for the 1970s is in full swing in films (Boogie Nights, Velvet Goldmine) and on
television (
That '70s Show). We are also witnessing the rise of the teen star as well, thanks again
to networks like The WB (with
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Felicity) and
films like
Scream, Varsity Blues and She's All That. These upside is that these performers
don't come with $20 million price tags, the downside is that some of them are still forming as
actors. Perhaps trying to move us into the inevitable 80s craze, screenwriter has written
200 Cigarettes, an episodic look at an eclectic group of twenty-somethings at the dawning of
the Reagan Era. With a cast that includes Courtney Love, Paul Rudd, Martha Plimpton, Jay Mohr
and Christina Ricci (just to name a few), and marking the directorial debut of noted casting agent
Risa Bramon Garcia, on paper this movie looked to be a no-brainer. Instead,
200 Cigarettes is
a mixed bag, with some winning performances and a killer soundtrack.

      Part of the problem at the beginning is that the soundtrack obliterates the dialogue so it
becomes difficult to figure out who's who and what their relation is to those around them. The film
opens with Lucy (Courtney Love) and a kvetching Kevin (Paul Rudd) in a cab. New Year's Eve
is Kevin's birthday and he has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, a performance
artist/singer, so he's mopey and whining. It's clear right from the start that Lucy has designs on
him, but he's oblivious. Their cab driver (Dave Chappelle — who functions as something like a
Greek chorus and who also appears to be the only taxi driver in NYC) dispenses advice.
Gradually, we are introduced to the various other people: Monica (Martha Plimpton) the
evening's hostess who frets no one will show up to her bash, her friend Hillary (Catherine Kellner),
Monica's ex-boyfriend Eric (Brian McCardie), a Scottish artist, and his new girlfriend (Nicole
Parker) who decides to dump him. Her friend Caitlyn (Angela Featherstone), who is desperate
not to be alone and the hunky bartender (Ben Affleck) she set her sights on. There are also a
couple (Jay Mohr and Kate Hudson) who had a one-night stand, two underage Long Islanders
(Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman) and the punk rocker wannabes (Casey Affleck and
Guillermo Diaz). Confused? That's part of the problem. There are too many people and too
many stories to follow; some more interesting than others.

      As a director, Bramon Garcia does not quite know how to maintain a rhythm to a scene, with
some sequences going on too long and others cut too short. The title may also be a problem,
especially in these politically correct times. I'm guessing but I think it refers to a carton of
cigarettes that Lucy purchases for Kevin, or it may be the actual number of butts depicted on
screen. I'm also assuming (I know! Not a good thing to do) that screenwriter Shana Larsen
has set the story in the early 80s to avoid things like political correctness, AIDS, condoms, etc.
Also, because Elvis Costello plays a pivotal role onscreen and served as a music consultant.
(Who knows? Maybe it's also meant to be autobiographical.)

      One of the pitfalls of ensemble pieces is that there is no clear cut audience surrogate. As
the viewer identify with the various types onscreen, their overall interest is dissipated.
Fragmentation causes boredom. Still, a handful of the actors, all female, rise above the material.
Although both overdo their accents, Ricci and Hoffman are quite amusing as fish-out-of-water,
particularly Hoffman as the more timid of the two. Martha Plimpton makes Monica's self-doubts
palpable and she has a hilarious scene where she tries to explain gently why she broke up with
the Scottish artist. Janeane Garofalo lends her patented astringency to what is really a cameo
appearance and Courtney Love proves that her work in
The People versus Larry Flynt was
no fluke. This woman has screen presence and delivers the best performance in the film.

      On the other hand, Ben Affleck proves stiff and uncomfortable, like he wandered in from
another movie and Jay Mohr hardly seems to be the ideal stud he is meant to play. I also wasn't
sure if Kate Hudson was merely imitating her mother Goldie Hawn's mannerisms (right down to
the annoying giggle) or if she really is that way. She tended to overdo the klutzy shtick but did
display flashes of something. She bears watching.

      200 Cigarettes isn't an unmitigated disaster, just a disappointment.

                                                                RATING:        C -
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.