Derivative, contrived, and predictable -- Tim Metcalfe's screenplay for Kalifornia hits the big trifecta.
How's this for a far-fetched plot: Brian Kessler is a struggling writer whose girlfriend, Carrie, is a photographer. He received an advance to do a book on serial killers, but when the movie opens he's already spent most of it. Brian and Carrie are a hip and sexy couple. We know this because they wear black, exchange soulful glances, and can dispassionately discuss her photographs, the content of which basically boils down to her getting it on with different men, especially black ones. But Carrie thinks Brian's friends are pretentious bores, presumably because they don't all wear black or photograph themselves having interracial sex. Carrie is also afraid she's stagnating, and Brian could use some help getting his book going.
They decide to take off on a cross-country road trip, stopping along the way at the sites of notorious killings so Brian can absorb the murderers' surroundings and ruminate about what was going on inside their heads. Brian believes these killers shouldn't be jailed because they are just misguided souls who were abused as children. Carrie will take pictures to illustrate this brilliant book. One hitch, though -- Brian's car is a real gas-guzzler. So he advertises for a rider to share expenses. He gets exactly one response to his ad, from a guy named Early Grayce (ooo -- could that name have a double meaning?). And guess what -- Early, played by Brad Pitt, is a real live serial killer!
Of course, Brian, the great expert, doesn't know yet that his rider is a psycho, even though Carrie's intuition is screaming red alert. And the presence of Early's dumb-as-a-rock, codependent girlfriend Adele -- a woman so thick she could have written this film -- just convinces Brian that his ride-sharers are a couple of stupid hicks. Brian can tell right away that Early isn't sophisticated enough to let Adele take dirty photos of herself with other guys. Rubes!
Much of the movie's prerelease buzz has swirled around the fact that Juliette Lewis, who portrays Adele, and Brad Pitt were off-camera lovers who broke up during the course of filming Kalifornia. That would be easy to understand if they carried even a smidgen of their roles home with them when they left the set. Their characters are two of the more obtuse and unsympathetic losers you're likely to find outside of the upcoming Dade County mayoral campaign. Unless, of course, you compare them with Brian and Carrie, the wimpy, liberal writer and his haughty, pouty shutterbug gal pal.
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Early has this theory about California, which he freely imparts to Adele one night outdoors while he's nude, digging a big hole in the ground. (It will later serve as the grave of his landlord.) Early figures people in California are smarter than they are elsewhere because it's always warm out there. "Cold weather makes people stupid," he concludes. Adele, being the quick study she is, buys it without asking her buck nekkid boyfriend what he's doing shoveling a hole deeper than he is tall in the middle of the night.
Of course, it doesn't take a Californian, warm or otherwise, to figure out that eventually Early will kill someone and Brian and Carrie will find out and we'll all get to see how Brian's pet theories about serial killers actually play out. But the only really significant questions the film raises are: Who will live and who will die, whose acting careers will rise and fall based on their performances in this self-important piece of celluloid effluvium, and, most distressingly, why did they spell the title with a "K" ?
Pitt and Lewis fare best. Sure, the parts of Early and Adele are typically condescending Hollywood portrayals of white trash, ringing about as true as Nick Nolte's bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. But the actors dive headlong into the roles and manage to make them credible, even terrifying. They're the latest in a series of actors to play those staples of American cinema, the murderous bad boy and his naive girlfriend. From Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands to Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Miami Blues, they've been reliable archetypes, and Pitt and Lewis do a passable job living up to the myth.
Unfortunately, director Dominic Sena's artistic vision betrays his training as a maker of music videos: all flash, no substance. And if you removed all the stereotypes, cliches, coincidences, and plot holes from Metcalfe's script, you'd be left with a narrative about as long (and substantial) as the three-minute promos Sena is more accustomed to directing. Early Grayce would have figured Metcalfe must have been pretty cold when he wrote it.