Like a roach crawling from your popcorn bag, “Bully” might appear to be the least welcome guest amid the summer lineup’s big shiny toys. Still, Lions Gate’s decision to launch the MPAA-unrated Larry Clark pic now (pointedly bypassing the fest circuit) may prove canny — this factually inspired provocation could seize a slow entertainment-news moment with its buzz of controversy. Beyond dangling (jail-) bait for the Hollywood-corrupts-our-children pundits, however, “Bully” is likely to elicit just a passing belch from more discerning/jaded viewers, critics included.
Shamelessly prurient, insight-free spin on a 1993 killing by Florida youth proves notorious photog Clark will never be filmmaker — or even pulp craftsman — enough to a create truly subversive work. By turns turgid, embarrassing and plain off-putting, “Bully” may spur comparison to such sober amoral youth Rorshachs as “River’s Edge” or docu “Paradise Lost.” But pic’s real place lies in the long lineup of “shocking expose” sleazies extending back through “Honky Tonk Girl,” “Teenage Gang Debs,” etc.
Clark has been down that road before with his successfully scandal-mongering 1995 debut “Kids.” His ’98 soph feature “Another Day in Paradise” was a more conventional “Bonnie & Clyde”/”Drugstore Cowboy” hybrid — and an improvement, albeit one few people saw. “Bully” retreats with a vengeance into unrate-able teensploitation.
Hip thrill-seekers may wring some unkind yucks from Clark’s overheated haplessness. Residents in the community where these events actually occurred will be less amused. Mainstream auds will just run screaming to the nearest Julia Roberts movie.
In July 1993, the body of Bobby Kent, who had been slain by a group of young adults, was found in Hollywood, Fla. Kent had been murdered by ostensible friends whom he had bullied and abused. Quickly sniffed out by police, those involved received prison sentences ranging from seven years to Death Row.
Panting out of the starting gate as crewcut junior hunk Marty (Brad Renfro) offers an older man dirty phone chat — one of budding venture-capitalist Kent’s bright ideas — pic straight-away trumpets its intent to gloat at lurid sexual aspects of the case.
Seems Kent (Nick Stahl) was a was quite the little sadist, having drafted best friend Marty at an early age for his extreme drug ‘n’ sex experiments. (One major credibility gap: As played by muscle-bound Renfro, Marty hardly seems bully-able — and like “Kids,” new effort can’t be bothered with psychological backgrounding.)
This master-slave dynamic extends to their tandem pickup of two local hotties, undiscriminating nymphet Ali (Bijou Phillips) and her less experienced pal Lisa (Rachel Miner).
Lisa and Marty both chafe at Bobby’s domination, which includes rudely joining their coitus (abrupt cutaway from Marty’s implied anal penetration reps pic’s sole prudish flinch), and later dragging admittedly kinky Ali well over the date-rape line.
When Lisa becomes pregnant, she decides enough is enough. “He’s the source of everybody’s problems … Let’s kill ‘im!” the expectant child chirps to Marty.
Ali seconds that emotion, merrily roping in Donny (Michael Pitt), Heather (Kelli Garner) and Derek (Daniel Franzese), none of whom appear to even consider the consequences of their act. When they first lure Bobby to a remote spot, however, designated assassin Lisa chokes on the trigger.
Entourage then solicits guidance from a scarcely older “hitman” (Leo Fitzpatrick), whose major qualification seems to be leadership of an ill-defined gang of prepubescent boys.
Up to this point “Bully” is sensationalistic — outta-nowhere setpieces include cringing straight boy Marty’s gay-bar striptease — yet so clumsily handled it’s hard to muster much outrage, let alone engagement. Clark does begin to build macabre momentum as the teens joyride to their big event.
The brutal murder itself, however, induces less horror than sarcastic amusement at which tough-talking teens turn chicken. After kinda-sorta disposing of the body, protags begin panicked finger-pointing. Soon, half the conspirators squeal to cops, ratting out the others to save their own hide.
Saga certainly does sport believe-it-or-not black-comedy aspects, some of which Clark grasps — as in late courtroom scene where, their gooses now cooked, prison-clad leads continue to bitch, bitch, bitch at one another.
But mostly “Bully” exhibits the humorless, abysmally self-exposing zeal of an ambulance chaser. Clark seems convinced that staring agog at the banalities of affluent suburbia constitutes a scorching critique. Alongside prior pics like Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” or Jonathan Kaplan’s “Over the Edge,” however, “Bully” barely evokes that milieu, let alone dissects it. Evil-teen pic “Wild Things” two years ago eked more atmosphere from its South Florida setting — and that film was intentional camp.
The kids in post-high school limbo here are blankly viewed as lascivious monsters, stupid and malevolent. They seem severed from any larger family, educational or social context. (Typical of pic’s cowardice is the vague, fleeting hint that Bobby’s control-freak dad “made him that way” though incestuous abuse.)
Like grind-house purveyors of yore, Clark wags a shaming finger on one hand while the other frantically keeps titillation value at full tumescence. Lest you think Clark unhip to the zeitgeist, he wallpapers the soundtrack with gangsta rap tracks and duly excerpts a vidclip from current Parental Hate Figure No. 1 Eminem (who was nowhere near the pop radar in ’93).
Based on Jim Schutze’s true-crime tome, screenplay by Zachary Long and Roger Pullis sports over-the-top scatological dialogue. This may indeed replicate real-life protags’ bluster, but here it tends to come off as yet more voyeuristic exaggeration.
Given that burden, not to mention their incessant disrobings, cast can’t really be faulted for their superficial, sometimes humiliating turns. Miner gets stuck with the silliest arc, as Lisa careens from dewy innocent to murderous sexpot to Crazy Lil’ Lady MacBeth. Clark’s notion of maximum performance value is exemplified in the scene where Marty confesses his Bobby-bedeviled history, all the while emitting a long cascade of mouth drool. Hoo baby, you can almost taste the realness!
Verite-style lensing and inexperienced thesps lent NYC-set “Kids” an air of queasy authenticity. Here, Clark’s slicker packaging and ensemble of glam young TV/film veterans only underline whole enterprise’s hypocrisy.
Steve Gainer’s lensing probes every inch of gratuitously flashed white meat. Splay-legged, rearview crotch shots are the plat du jour. (Framing takes care, however, to stop precisely at the last allowable centimeter of male pubic hair. This No Johnson Zone, alas, doesn’t extend to protecting actresses’ netherparts from kamikaze scrutiny.) Occasional stylistic flourishes, such as an attenuated 360-degree spin around plotting protags, are just inept. Editor Andrew Hafitz is unable to impose a viable rhythm on proceedings; pic never quite recovers from early reels that drop the ball on any number of follow-through scenes and key character details.
For the record, production start-date was postponed for 10 months after the Columbine shootings. Happily, we’re all recovered enough now to enjoy cautionary entertainment at its lip-smackin’ finest.