Turning their same-titled 1999 docu (and James St. James’ tell-all tome “Disco Bloodbath”) into a first narrative feature, veteran nonfiction team Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Monica in Black and White”) have arrived at pretty much the same result. In either form, “Party Monster” is a colorful, lurid and ultimately so-what look at obnoxious personalities careening down their own road to ruin. With a grownup — in years if not childlike looks — Macaulay Culkin cast as infamous New York City “club kid”-turned-murderer Michael Alig, pic gains even more curiosity value as a Pop Celebrity Culture Train Wreck spectacle, which should lead to acceptable biz among urban hipsters. But pic lacks the kind of depth or acting brilliance of Christine Vachon’s look at an earlier Big Apple glitterati era, “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Critical response is unlikely to encourage crossover biz.
Alig rose to fame by appointing himself Warhol’s successor in the initially tepid, AIDS-debilitated Manhattan club scene of the early 1990s. Similarly surrounded by androgynous, attention-hungry “superstars,” he invented a persona whose presence somehow guaranteed cutting-edge shock and exclusivity. His bizarrely themed parties (raiding subway cars or burger joints, costumes keyed to concepts like “Blood Feast”) rejuvenated the flagging scene, creating a new “club kid” persona — outlandish, bratty, deliberately grotesque — that even won national tabloid-TV attention.
But it also ran on an indiscriminate diet of drugs — from Ecstasy and horse tranquilizer “Special K” to cocaine and heroin — that ensured eventual auto-destruct. Amid many fatal ODs, Alig’s own flameout was more creative: In a paranoid drug haze, he and a confederate brutally killed (via hammer and Drano injection) their longtime dealer-acolyte Angel Menendez.
Pic starts on a deliberately self-conscious note with St. James (Seth Green) patting himself on the back for using the violent-tease-first, then-rewind-to-backstory formula for “my movie.” Thus we catch a glimpse of the demise of Angel (Wilson Cruz) before James and Michael (Culkin) commence arguing — as is their wont — over whose childhood was more damaging, etc.
That prelude quickly over, it’s on to NYC. Would-be writer St. James is an established over-the-top club diva when Alig arrives in town. Another picked-on Midwestern gay boy determined to make it big, latter is utterly green. But he’s also ambitious as hell — wasting no time before tapping St. James for tips on “fabulousness,” then just as quickly claiming the ideas as his own.
Michael has the gumption to approach Limelight club owner Peter Gatien (Dylan McDermott), bluffing his way into getting use of the facility for numerous mondo-fab parties.
Once he overcomes his prudish attitude toward drugs, Alig develops addictions fierce enough to drive away ideal boyfriend Keoki (Wilmer Valderrama). His escapades also test the loyalty of St. James, who unwisely has become a roommate and whose own usage is out of control.
Among myriad eager innocents who stumble into the vortex, pretty-boy Angel is exploited as a drug connection without ever being admitted to the innermost circle. He grows more and more resentful, especially since Michael’s enormous chemical consumption is in inverse proportion to his willingness to pay. When Angel’s temper finally explodes, a strung-out Alig and fellow scenester Freez (Justin Hagan, onscreen throughout yet given almost no character definition) drastically over-retaliate.
Co-directors/scenarists face a challenge sustaining interest in a milieu that raised the bar for superficiality and whose lasting cultural impact (especially compared to the Warhol “scene”) proved flash-in-the-pan.
Mixed results underline that difficulty. Attempts at characters addressing the camera directly only make smug, not-as-witty-as-they-think figures seem more so. Colorful as they are, early party scenes never seem fun — all the posing and drugging look more desperate than daring.
Once the story arc starts to go downhill, as it does rapidly, lack of emotional involvement becomes a problem. Fadeout also lacks punch.
In his first significant screen part as an adult, Culkin is just OK. He’s far too puppyish to capture Alig’s increasingly carnivorous, amoral appetites for drugs and fame, coming off as a boy hardly likely to overshadow St. James. Nor does his “I only want to be loved” (an actual line) pathos ever feel like more than a rote script stab at “depth.” Green’s far more accomplished turn lends James an effetely mannered flamboyance that suggests he and Culkin should have swapped roles.
Subsidiary characters tend to come off as window dressing. Chloe Sevigny (who actually traveled in these real-life circles) is Alig’s eventual quasi-“girlfriend,” Natasha Lyonne is another hanger-on, and goth rocker Marilyn Manson is a drug-fogged cross-dresser. Diana Scarwid plays Alig’s mother, who cheerfully joins the “party” yet turns a blind eye to its darker aspects. But her intriguing appearances are too brief to satisfy.
Pic is fast-paced, even if the predictable downward spiral grows a little dull. Lack of a generous budget is evident in preponderance of close shots. Nevertheless, lenser Teodoro Maniaci, production designer Andrea Stanley and the incredible objet d’art costumes (by Michael Wilkinson and Kabuki) do a resourceful job of evoking a garish scene in which every night was Halloween.
The era’s thumping, mostly crappy club hits are put to good use on the soundtrack; much less helpful is Jimmy Harry’s original synth score, which sounds too tacky even for the era.