TORONTO, Canada -- One week after the gross-out comedy "There's Something About Mary" reached No. 1 at the box office, here's Cameron Diaz back again in an even grosser movie - one that makes "Mary" look positively tasteful by comparison.
"Very Bad Things," which had its world premiere this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, tests the limits of what a general-audience picture can contain. Although my review will wait until the movie opens, word will be quickly spreading from a capacity crowd that was urged by writer-director Peter Berg to shout at the screen: "Hit it back! It can take it!"
Diaz has a supporting role, as a 27-year-old who is focusing obsessively on her upcoming marriage. Most of the movie involves a Las Vegas bachelor party and its aftermath, as her fiancee (Jon Favreau) is joined by his buddies (Christian Slater, Jeremy Piven, Daniel Stern and Leland Orser) in a wild booze-and-drugs orgy that ends with them burying bodies in the desert. And that's only the start of the very bad things.
It's not the story that's startling, really, but the gruesome, violent tone. The events in "Very Bad Things" could occur in lots of different kinds of movies, but Berg seems intent not only on pushing the envelope but slashing and burning it.
The question occurs: Is Hollywood going to get involved in a race to outgross itself? There were those who were offended by "There's Something About Mary," but at heart it was a romantic screwball comedy, and it got away with murder because it was really, truly funny. A movie doesn't climb to the top of the box-office charts in its eighth week unless the word of mouth is extraordinary: Moviegoers are obviously telling their friends about it, and taking them to see it at theaters that shake with laughter.
If laughter can redeem borderline subject matter, one wonders how much laughter it will take to redeem "Very Bad Things," which involves mayhem so gruesome it upstages the previous record-holder, "Shallow Grave," especially in the vivisection and burial department. There are racial themes sure to make audiences uncomfortable (two of the victims are black and Asian; several of the heroes talk much of their Jewishness). And although the later stages of the movie relax into somewhat more conventional slapstick, the Vegas scenes seem inspired by gore and slasher movies more than by comedy.
Will this mixture work at the box office? I heard a lot of laughter and some applause at theToronto premiere. But, less obviously to be sure, I sensed that many audience members were watching in thoughtful silence.
What a contrast was "After Life," the new film by Japan's Hirokazu Kore-Eda, whose "Maborosi" was one of the best films of last year. The new film has a premise that sounds simplistic, but the film reaches surprising emotional insights.
It's about a way-station between this world and the next, where the newly deceased are asked to choose one memory that they wish to preserve. The memory is then re-enacted and filmed by the way-station staff, and after viewing it the visitors move on to the next level of the afterlife, with only that one memory left to them.
What will the newcomers choose? What will it mean? How will their choices affect the staff members? The movie takes its seemingly sentimental premise and uses it to examine how memory works selectively to interpret our loves to ourselves.
"I expect the total transformation of their lives the moment they get on the bus," declares a Manhattan tour bus guide named Timothy (Speed) Levitch, in a weirdly infectious new documentary by Bennett Miller named "The Cruise." Levitch clears about $200 a week improvising into the microphone as he conducts tours, or "cruises," informing and amazing his Gray Line passengers with such information as, "You are five blocks from where Dorothy Parker died of alcoholism and despair."
Levitch is a cast-iron original, with his adenoidal voice, blinding sports coats, unruly mane of curly hair and flat-footed gait. He seems utterly confident about who he is and what he does, but an oddness creeps in, and we suspect there's more to the story. He seems to be projecting his entire psyche onto the city and the tour.
Here he is on architecture: "I identify with the anger and inferiority that some of the smaller buildings feel." Louis Sullivan's terra cotta Manhattan skyscraper is, he feels, orgasmic, and he describes its sex life in detail. Of the Brooklyn Bridge, he says, "Eleven people have jumped off this bridge and survived. One of my cruising dreams would be to get those people together on a cruise."
He became a tour guide, he explains, "to meet and seduce women." That's why he rebels at the requirement that he wear the Gray Line's official uniform, a red shirt: "You are not ever gonna get lucky in a red shirt."