“Slumming for Dummies” would be a better title for “Havoc,” an earnest, semi-gritty tale of bored rich girls from Pacific Palisades teasing tattooed Latino drug dealers in East Los Angeles. Penned by “Traffic” scribe Stephen Gaghan and helmed by veteran documaker Barbara Kopple, handsomely mounted pic about morally fluid kids with largely absentee parents features gifted young thesps acting up a foul-mouthed storm and material that zigzags between convincing and trying way too hard. Forthright nudity by nubile leads Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips should make this a popular video item when it hits Stateside Nov. 29, in both R-rated and unrated versions.
Hathaway takes a Johnny Depp-style leap from family fare to a harsher arena as Allison, who lives in an opulent house with her rarely-seen mom (Laura San Giacomo, well cast but under-utilized) and overworked, ever-absent dad (Michael Biehn). She has perfunctory recreational sex with b.f. Toby (Mike Vogel), a privileged white guy who uses gangsta terminology with faux panache.
One night, Allison, along with her best friend Emily (Phillips), Samy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Toby drive into a poor Latino neighborhood in Toby’s conspicuous convertible to score some drugs. The white kids’ bravado only gets them so far, but Allison is intrigued by lanky desperado-prototype Hector (Freddy Rodriguez, calmly oozing street cred).
The adrenaline rush of genuine danger — and the prospect of “belonging” that is sorely missing in the kids’ sterile families — has the female fish-out-of-water swimming back for more. But pretty, underage white girls and macho Mexicans with tattooed necks do not make a genteel mix.
A tech nerd classmate (Matt O’Leary) is making an interview-heavy video about his jaded peer group, which occasions some of the film’s most wince-inducing dialogue. Some of pic’s cross-cultural showdowns boast authentic menace, illustrating the scary divide between adopting the trappings of another lifestyle as fashion accessories vs. having scant choice about the unforgiving codes of survival.
As played by Hathaway and Phillips, the friendship between Allison and Emily rings girlish and true, and comes complete with tantalizing, lesbian-flavored moments. Film stumbles, though, whenever the white lads put on their badder-than-thou “nigga” act: There still seems to be no credible way on film to depict well-off white folks pretending to be hardboiled inner-city vets.
Overall, “Havoc” too often feels like a gussied-up ’50s-style treatise about the dangers of nice girls flirting with social rebels. This 21st-century version is retooled with guns, group sex and crack cocaine.
Pic is dedicated to Jessica Kaplan, the original writer, who died in a plane crash over L.A. in June 2003.