The Young and the Shiftless

Rarely have I felt the urge to punch out a movie character as strongly as I wanted to deck John, the sullen protagonist of George Hickenlooper's cheerless The Low Life. That's probably the reaction Hickenlooper was seeking at a certain point in his movie, but probably not the one he wants viewers to leave the theater with.

You're supposed to like John at first because he's smart and clever and talented. (You know these things about him not because of anything he says or does, but rather because other characters ascribe those qualities to him. And because, as played by Rory Cochrane, he carries himself like a jaded intellectual antihero. Throughout the film John speaks little and sports two facial expressions: a blank stare and a mildly pained grimace.) Then the filmmaker wants you to become disenchanted with the young man as his self-imposed emotional distance hurts those around him and further screws up his already bleak personal life. (This is the part where you're supposed to want to slug him.) Finally, Hickenlooper hopes you'll share a cathartic cry with John when he realizes what a shit he's been at movie's end.

Sorry, George, no dice. Unlike, say, Warren Beatty's comically womanizing hairdresser in Shampoo, Robert De Niro's brutally defiant boxer in Raging Bull, or Harvey Keitel's outrageously corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant, John never gives you a reason to like him. He makes it a point of honor to bottle up his emotions and not let outsiders -- including those of us in the viewing audience -- into his head. That makes John one damn hard leading character to care about. You have to evaluate him purely by his actions, and his actions reek of apathy.

"Just arrived in Los Angeles," John writes in a postcard to his beloved Uncle Darr. "I'm going to try to be a writer. First will have to find a job. But, unlike a large portion of the newly arrived population, I will not fail." But John, who like real-life scriptwriter Hickenlooper and his screenplay collaborator John Enbom journeyed to L.A. after graduating from Yale, spends a lot more time playing the role of a writer than actually writing. You're less likely to find him at a keyboard than you are to meet him at the local yuppie-infested watering hole where he holds court with Chad (Ron Livingston) and Leonard (Christian Meoli), a pair of underachieving college buddies who scam drinks and disparage anyone they perceive to be unhip (i.e., everybody but themselves).

Uncle Darr, bless his heart, believes in his nephew. Then again, Uncle Darr is the kind of guy who wears shorts with shiny black shoes and blue socks pulled taut over his calves. He chain-munches Fig Chew-eez and reads John's card while gently rocking in a chair on the front porch of his house somewhere in the Midwest. "Good to hear your plans," Uncle Darr writes back to John. "I know we'll have a writer in this family yet, no matter what your mother thinks. But don't forget: Discipline and hard work are what count. The petty seductions of this world are best left to other people."

John takes his uncle's words to heart -- selectively. He leaves the petty seductions of this world to others. John doesn't date, although he briefly entertains a doomed affair with Bevan, an eccentric, oversexed alcoholic (Kyra Sedgwick, speaking in a dinner-theater Blanche Dubois accent) for whom John represents quite a departure; she usually consorts with older married men. John has less success with the "discipline and hard work" part of Uncle Darr's advice. Rather than commit to steady (and presumably higher-paying) jobs, John, Chad, and Leonard serve as office temps, pulling and sorting carbon credit card slips. (Now there's an image I'll bet they're thrilled with in New Haven: three Yale grads temping for minimum wage.) John finally quits the job in disgust, only to crawl back to the employment agency and accept a new assignment working for a sleazy father-and-son slumlord team.

John awakens every morning with a scowl, endures demeaning drudge work all day, then comes home at night to face off with his typewriter or insult his geeky roommate Andrew (Sean Astin, looking like an older, fleshier Skippy from Family Ties). Andrew desperately seeks John's friendship and approval. He's a nerd, but he's also the only remotely sympathetic character in this entire film. But John, struggling to support himself, writing little, and drinking every night, treats the likable little guy with unwarranted disdain. His cruelty has tragic consequences.

The Low Life is George Hickenlooper's first attempt at directing a feature film from his own script. He has, however, helmed a few feature-length documentaries, including 1992's Hearts of Darkness, the award-winning behind-the-scenes look at the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The Low Life feels self-indulgent and somewhat autobiographical, like a documentarian's attempt to pass off a thinly disguised slice of life as a work of fiction. (Hickenlooper acknowledges the film's autobiographical basis in the press materials.) You get the sense that the filmmaker patterned the main character after himself and just took it on faith that viewers would accept him as the swell guy Hickenlooper no doubt thinks he is. Despite the fact that Hickenlooper and Enbom fire off a few good lines and convincingly portray a particularly virulent strain of ennui that seems endemic to Southern California, the film's meandering, episodic structure smacks less of linear storytelling than of a muddled attempt to work through a confusing chapter in Hickenlooper's life. Let's hope he has purged it all from his system, and that he's not nearly as annoying a character in real life as his movie's protagonist. I'd hate to have to thrash him.

 
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