A seemingly dubious “high concept” hook — talking trash about your friends can prove fatal — delivers more nasty fun than you’d expect in “Gossip.” Ultra-sleek suspenser about tres glam Ivy Leaguers’ rumor-spreading experiment gone awry doesn’t exactly hold up under logical scrutiny five minutes after end-title; indeed, it stretches credibility just before the end, with one narrative twist too many. Hinging a glossy, manipulative thriller on did-he-or-didn’t-he date rape may put a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths even earlier. Nonetheless, “Gossip” is undeniably crafty screen pulp, pulled taut and polished to a reflecting sheen by TV helmer-turned-feature debutant David Guggenheim (“NYPD Blue,” “ER”). Sans marquee names, but featuring the currently de rigueur assortment of rising cuties from big and small screen, pic could build strong word-of-mouth support amongst youthful auds after likely medium-range opening numbers.
Screenplay by Gregory Poirier and Theresa Rebeck — which originated as a project for Joel Schumacher, who took exec producer reins instead — is in a hurry from the get-go, as we’re introduced to its highly photogenic, immaculately clad protags.
Students at a New England college, whip-smart Jones (Lena Headey) and tortured-artist type Travis (Norman Reedus), share a jaw-dropping loft off-campus with wealthy fellow student Derrick (James Marsden), its owner and their de facto landlord. Trio are best buds, attending classes and clubs alike as an inseparable unit. There’s a frisson of sexual tension betwixt Jones and Derrick. But she’s bright enough (for the time being) to know good lovers make bad flatmates — and cocky, predatory Derrick is unwise b.f. material, anyway.
Most compelling course the three share appears to be Journalistic Ethics or something of the sort, in which caustic Prof. Goodwin (Eric Bogosian, ranting a tad too much like his solo stage personae) goads seminar attendees into discussion of media responsibility, the blur between gossip, entertainment and “real news,” etc.
At a subsequent student party (staged at another wildly idealized loft-residence-cum-danceteria), Jones takes note of new enrollee Naomi’s (Kate Hudson) bad attitude — then is stung when a mutual friend (Marisa Coughlan) implies this “rich blond bitch” is spreading a wicked rumor about her. Meanwhile, Derrick is busy putting the make on another girl, getting stuck in someone’s private loo when the latter gets drink-woozy.
From that vantage, he spies Naomi getting horizontal on a bed with jockish Beau (Joshua Jackson). They’re going at it hot and heavy for a while, but Naomi — whom campus mill has already deduced “doesn’t put out” — calls off the action before passing out. End of story, it seems. But later, Derrick has an evil brainstorm: Why not spread word that Naomi did indeed “put out” that night, and track the slander’s path as a collective “project” for Goodwin’s course? Suppressing their better judgment, Travis and Jones agree.
Needless to say, Naomi becomes Alleged Slut No. 1 on campus in no time, fake story acquiring baroque details (a black rubber bra, multiple partners) as it travels. But then that story takes an ugly turn in the overactive collective imagination — it’s posited that Beau did have sex with her, after Naomi passed out. Already mortified by the whispers, and not at all sure herself what happened that night, Naomi comes to believe she was raped.
Beau is arrested. A frantic, conscience-stricken Jones tries to clear the air, first by approaching Naomi, then by confessing all to a cop (Sharon Lawrence) who angrily dismisses her as “impeding an investigation.” The chips keep piling up, eventually encompassing battery, suicide, a homicide detective (Edward James Olmos), incriminating high school secrets, very bad vibes amongst housemates, and the inevitable rooftop-struggle-with-gun-amid-rain-thunder-and-lightning.
No-fat scenario and Guggenheim’s high-octane, stylish (yet admirably never quite MTV-ish) direction keep the tension ratcheting up so efficiently you probably won’t notice — or care about, until post-pic guilty hangover — various gaping plot holes. Why doesn’t suspicious but unsure Naomi get a medical exam? What sane university would let a professor get so routinely abusive in class? And just who let the designers go bananas with Travis’ multimedia loft installations, by the way? (It’s certainly not the intriguing Reedus’ fault that Travis ends up the least complex, most gratuitous central figure.)
All these concerns are rendered moot, kinda sorta, in a photo-finish reversal of fortunes that is at once too much, too little and way too familiar. It’s a self-deflating letdown. But at least — like everything preceding — it arrives and is over faster than you can say “ouch.” Though queasy-making theme and flashy treatment will no doubt spell t-r-a-s-h for some viewers, “Gossip’s” execution scores a notch or three above most recent youth-cast, youth-targeted pics. Vet lenser Andrezej Bartkowiak (whose directorial debut “Romeo Must Die” is still in theaters) gives proceedings a great widescreen look, and Jay Cassidy’s bone-lean editing abets suspense while keeping excess focus off a production design (by David Nichols) that’s a tad over the top even as an escapist fantasy of college life.
Cast of getting-to-be-familiar faces contribs impressive conviction as well as dreamy looks. Brit Headey, doing her first Yank-accent lead, looks more than ever to have star-worthy charisma, silvered by a hint of sly humor. Marsden deftly high-wires between charm and threat until the script forces him into a one-way plunge. Hudson does fine work revealing Naomi as far more vulnerable than first impression suggests. Older thesps do OK with limited screen time — it’s not their show.
Tech aspects are top-drawer; soundtrack makes excellent use of thumping techno and alt-rock tracks, while Graeme Revell’s instrumental score cranks up the anxiety when called for.