Feature scenarist-helmer James Merendino got a solid aud response to "SLC Punk," but then the night's odds were stacked in his favor: How could an opening-night Park City crowd not embrace a movie whose raison d'etat often seemed to be giving Salt Lake City the single-digit salute?

Feature scenarist-helmer James Merendino got a solid aud response to “SLC Punk,” but then the night’s odds were stacked in his favor: How could an opening-night Park City crowd not embrace a movie whose raison d’etat often seemed to be giving Salt Lake City the single-digit salute? In the wider world, this energetic but poorly structured, rather self-congratulatory look at spike-haired rebelliousness in mid-’80s Utah could strike unbiased viewers as more grating than gratifying. Distribber Sony Classics might well lean hard on the soundtrack’s vintage ramalama hits in hopes of striking a nostalgic twentysomething chord. But just as pic’s protagonist misses the ironic lameness of an “anarchistic” philosophy being articulated by rich-kid brat bound for law school, so “SLC Punk” itself doesn’t quite grasp how its slick, flashy package undermines any actual punk cred.

Blue-haired Stevo (Matthew Lillard) shares a duly graffiti-sprayed and trashed apartment with mohawk’d best bud Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian), who’s so named for his extreme abhorrence of needles rather than any substance use. The two like to start fights — particularly with “rednecks,” who they like even less than hippies, New Wavers, metalheads, or other miscellaneous other types — smash things, get drunk, etc. Why? Because, like, they’re rebelling against the System of course!

A major problem with “SLC Punk” is that it views its characters’ escapades on the same level as they themselves do: as edgy, raw, rule-breaking shit. Unfortunately, what we see looks a lot more like a suburban fashion statement, for all the voiceover railing against just such “posers.” As written — and played by the frenetic Lillard — Stevo seems more petulant than genuinely angry. He is evidently getting excellent grades in pre-law study (though the film carefully avoids any uncool glimpses of academia), has divorced but indulgent parents and, in the end, simply, shruggingly announces he’s off to Harvard Law School after all. So much for anarchy.

Though never very clever, Merendino’s episodic screenplay does have a few comic highlights that his direction handles well: Notably needle-shy Bob’s unhappy trip to the hospital, the results of fellow traveler Sean’s (Devon Sawa) acid mega-dosing, and a flashback to Bob and Stevo’s pre-punk-makeover, a junior high geekdom of Rush tapes and “Dungeons & Dragons” games.

Helming’s relentless high energy — boosted by freeze-frames, staccato cuts, fast-motion, and other gambits — proves more wearying than infectious over the long haul, however, and it tends to underline the basic weakness of the material. Character development is next to nil; there’s so little dramatic substance built up that when a major character abruptly dies near the end, the only emotion stirred is irritation at such blatant contrivance.

Cast is committed, though given little to work with. Annabeth Gish, Jennifer Lien and Summer Phoenix clock indistinct screentime as various girlfriends. German star Til Schweiger manages to make a vivid impression as Mark, a wealthy European passer-by whose excesses briefly make everyone else look quite firmly grounded.

The soundtrack is, needless to say, wallpapered loudly with (mostly) classic punk faves by the Dead Kennedys, Gen X, the Stooges, Minor Threat, Blondie, Ramones, etc. Design elements and Greg Littlewood’s wide-format lensing are eye-catching, though film might actually have been better served by a grittier visual aesthetic.

SLC Punk

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Beyond Films presentation of a Blue Tulip production. Produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward. Executive producers, Jan De Bont, Michael Peyser, Andrea Kreuzhage. Directed, written by James Merendino.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision), Greg Littlewood); editor, Esther P. Russel; music supervisor, Melanie Miller; production designer, Charlotte Malmloff; costume designer, Fiora; sound recordist (Dolby THX), Doug Cameron; associate producers, Katrina Fernandez, Glenn Salloum; casting, Risa Bramon Garcia, Randi Hiller. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Park City Opening Night Premiere), Jan. 22, 1999. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Stevo - Matthew Lillard Bob - Michael Goorjian Trish - Annabeth Gish Sandy - Jennifer Lien Father - Christopher McDonald Sean - Devon Sawa Mike - Jason Segel Brandy - Summer Phoenix John the Mod - James Duval Mark - Til Schweiger Eddie - Adam Pascal Jennifer- Chiara Barzini Chris- Kevin Breznahan

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