A darkly comic twist on the stag-party-gone-wrong minigenre, "Very Bad Things" spreads its genuinely outrageous, belly-laugh moments pretty thinly across an average, suburban-white-rage buddies comedy. Benefiting considerably from the presence of Christian Slater and (especially in the final segs) Cameron Diaz, with all the anarchic connotations their presence brings, this first directorial outing by "Chicago Hope" star Peter Berg is nonetheless an uneven stab at graveyard humor that badly needed a more stylish hand at the helm and less indulgence of its actors. Curiosity should see this one start off with reasonable numbers, but distrib Polygram looks unlikely to have a bad-taste breakout hit on its hands, a la "There's Something About Mary."

A darkly comic twist on the stag-party-gone-wrong minigenre, “Very Bad Things” spreads its genuinely outrageous, belly-laugh moments pretty thinly across an average, suburban-white-rage buddies comedy. Benefiting considerably from the presence of Christian Slater and (especially in the final segs) Cameron Diaz, with all the anarchic connotations their presence brings, this first directorial outing by “Chicago Hope” star Peter Berg is nonetheless an uneven stab at graveyard humor that badly needed a more stylish hand at the helm and less indulgence of its actors. Curiosity should see this one start off with reasonable numbers, but distrib Polygram looks unlikely to have a bad-taste breakout hit on its hands, a la “There’s Something About Mary.”

Like “Mary” — and perhaps working in its B.O. favor among general auds — “Very Bad Things” is basically a very conventional movie gussied up with a few jaw-dropping moments. Unlike genuinely amoral pics such as “Heathers” or “Shallow Grave,” it never seems really comfortable with its characters’ actions: Each morally transgressive moment has to be analyzed and justified with (often overheated) dialogue before moving on to the story’s next stage. This not only saps the fun from the spiraling orgy of death and violence but also grounds the movie in a way that sits uneasily with the characters’ ungrounded actions.

First two reels are a curiously slow-burning mix of kooky comedy and male bonding, as we meet ’90s suburban man Kyle (Jon Favreau), his obsessive, control-freak bride, Laura (Diaz), and his four best buddies. Last are a pretty weird mob: brothers Adam (Daniel Stern) and Michael (Jeremy Piven), quiet mechanic Charles (Leland Orser) and yuppie real estate agent Robert (Slater), a master of corporate-speak.

Kyle and his friends set off for a night of drink and drugs in Las Vegas; however, the fun soon grinds to a halt when a hired stripper (Carla Scott) accidentally skewers her brains on a coat hook when she and Michael get passionate in the bathroom. It’s here, finally, that the mordant humor kicks in, as Robert, the only cool head among the panicking pardners, takes charge, calmly gutting a hotel security man who comes to tell them to keep the noise down.

Robert, who observes that the hotel suite “looks like the Manson family stayed here a month,” assures his hysterical pals that the smart play is to chop up the bodies and bury them in the desert. This they eventually accomplish, after some religious objections by the Jewish Adam that the bits and pieces must be reconstituted as two separate corpses before burial. In an improvised funeral oration, Kyle observes that they have done “a very wrong thing,” but the experience will make them much more positive members of society.

Back in L.A. the next morning, act two starts with Adam almost cracking under the weight of guilt, his accidental demise that evening and Robert’s increasingly crazed (if perfectly logical) solutions to keep the Las Vegas incident under wraps. On the day of the wedding, however, even Robert meets his match in Laura, who will let nothing — repeat, nothing — stand in the way of her long-planned walk down the aisle.

The various murder sequences, and especially the gross-on-gross finale in which Diaz’s character comes into her own (“Stick him in the crapper, and get your ass upstairs!”), have a genuinely funny, Grand Guignol–like humor that isn’t sustained by the interludes in between — largely sequences of white male middle-class paranoia manipulated by the coolheaded Robert as if it’s all one big real estate deal gone bad.

Like many actors turned directors, Berg indulges his thesps at the expense of the movie’s overall rhythm and style: Stern is one-note hysterical as Adam, Orser poorly delineated as the mechanic, and Piven simply passable as Michael, Adam’s less emotional baby brother. A pic like this, which has characters performing unmotivated, violently antisocial acts, can’t have it both ways by also trying to tap into real emotions.

In fact, without Slater and Diaz, the movie would be a pretty dull piece of work on the perf side. It’s left to Jeanne Tripplehorn, in a relatively small role as Adam’s observant (and surprisingly athletic) wife, to match the tone of Slater and Diaz.

Visually, the pic has flashes of the style needed to bring a comedy like this off — the cleaning up of the Vegas hotel room, Adam’s near-breakdown at a gas station — but otherwise is average, with no thoroughgoing look. Production values are relatively modest, though smartly appointed.

Very Bad Things

(BLACK COMEDY)

Production

A Polygram Films release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation, in association with Initial Entertainment Group, of an Interscope Communications production, in association with BallPark Prods. Produced by Michael Schiffer, Diane Nabatoff, Cindy Cowan. Executive producers, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Michael Helfant, Christian Slater. Directed, written by Peter Berg.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), David Hennings; editor, Dan Lebental; music, Stewart Copeland; music supervisor, Sterling Meredith; production designer, Dina Lipton; art director, Michael Atwell; costume designer , Terry Dresbach; sound (Dolby Digital), Mark Weingarten, Matthew Iadarola, Gary Gegan; stunt coordinator, Chris Howell; casting, Pagano Manwiller. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 12, 1998. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival --- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Robert Boyd ..... Christian Slater Laura Garrety ..... Cameron Diaz Adam Berkow ..... Daniel Stern Lois Berkow ..... Jeanne Tripplehorn Kyle Fisher ..... Jon Favreau Michael Berkow ..... Jeremy Piven Charles Moore ..... Leland Orser Adam Berkow Jr. ..... Joey Zimmerman Timmy Berkow ..... Tyler Malinger Tina ..... Carla Scott Security Guard ..... Russell B. McKenzie

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