Excuse me, but can somebody explain the movie world's fascination with Las Vegas? The town without p(ersonal)ity crops up year after year as Hollywood's favorite location. It's not as though Las Vegas has some kind of special energy. There are tawdry casinos and cruising cars and neon nightscapes all over this culturally challenged country. It can't be the visual dynamics. The only interesting thing about the place is the over-the-top casino architecture, which no one can photograph without a permit and a big cash payoff. And the sociopolitical scene definitely is not unique. If you want mobbed-up restaurants and clubs, hookers and hustlers, show-biz wannabes and castoffs, real estate grifters and sleazy politicians on the take, we've got all that in South Florida.
But Vegas movies keep on coming. There are so many, the town even has its own subgenres. There are LV dramas (Casino, Bugsy, and Leaving Las Vegas, to mention the obvious ones) and LV comedies (Honeymoon in Las Vegas and Sister Act). Now along comes Speedway Junky, another "streets of Vegas" flick that seems determined to plant a foot in both camps but trips itself up in the process.
Writer/director Nickolas Perry spins a simple yarn of restless Johnny (Jesse Bradford), an army brat who's hitchhiking east to North Carolina with a dream of becoming a stock-car driver. Passing through Las Vegas, he hits the slot machines, hoping to score enough money for a bus ticket. But when he looks the other way, he's robbed of his loot and finds himself on the street. He's befriended by blond, blow-dried Eric (Jordan Brower), a gay hustler. Johnny, who's straight and rather straight-laced, rebuffs Eric's help and comfort. But when his hapless attempts to rustle up some legal tender fail miserably, Johnny's thoughts turn from rustling to hustling.
If this setup sounds familiar, it should. Life on the streets has been a fascination of modern moviemakers almost as much as Las Vegas has. Consider Larry Clark's Kids or Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. Speedway Junky's connection to these films isn't merely narrative; Van Sant serves as the film's executive producer.
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Like its predecessors, Junky is set largely on the nighttime mean streets, as Johnny careens from one mishap to another, only to be aided by Eric after each one. Johnny is grateful for Eric's kindness but grows uncomfortable when he realizes Eric is attracted to him. It becomes another gay-straight morass as friendship and desire are confused. Johnny wants to be with Eric; he even asks him to go along to North Carolina. But Johnny's mixed emotions just mean more confusion for Eric. "Why can't you just act like a normal person and reject me?" he asks.
This odd-couple relationship is at the core of the film, and if Perry had focused on it, he'd have a terrific little movie. Problem is, Perry wants to enter Van Sant country, where brutal realism, tenderness, and dark humor are tossed together. Van Sant has pulled this off a number of times, but Perry doesn't manage it here -- at least not in the true-life-on-the-streets part. His streetwise hustlers talk the scabrous, strutting talk, but, with the notable exception of Erik Alexander Gavica as a Chicano homeboy with a hair-trigger temper, they don't walk the walk. These are actors who look like actors; their skin, hair, teeth, and clothes are perfect, clean, unmarked by life. Their mean streets aren't dirty or dangerous, and neither are their performances. Everything is well lit and arty, the camera work fluid, the badinage smart and stylish. The whole thing feels about as street as Mr. Rogers (and at least he seems to fit in his neighborhood). These guys look as if they can't wait to get back to the Viper Room in L.A. Another curious aspect here is the decided lack of heat or visual daring. This may be the least explicit movie about sex ever made, at least since 1970. There is some male-female caressing, but for all the talk about gay sex, Junky is content with an attempted boy-to-boy peck on the cheek. Wow.
That's not to say that Speedway Junky doesn't succeed in parts; it just doesn't cohere. The Johnny/Eric plot line certainly is intriguing, and it's virtually operatic with anguished Eric as teenage love martyr. But Johnny's other episodes, racing around Las Vegas at night, have a wacky, even slapstick, aspect. Many minor roles are played very broadly and (we hope) for laughs. A pie-eyed businessman tries to finagle Johnny into a dog collar for a little kinky action. Tiffani-Amber Thiessen pops up as a chipmunk-cheeked bride who's all alone on her wedding night. One look at her sobbing on the sidewalk, and you'll burst out laughing: This is sitcom acting at its finest. Likewise Daryl Hannah gives a loopy, though possibly intentionally serious (and if so, laughable), performance as a battered ex-showgirl who is given a long dramatic monologue, the set piece of the story. It may be that handing over key moments to performers of this caliber suggests Perry is going for a sly style of humor, the sort of thing that Russ Meyer understood: If you can't laugh with my actors, laugh at 'em.
Speedway Junky would make an interesting comedy either way. But that darn Johnny/Eric story line just won't let it happen. And it's pretty clear that Perry hopes to span the comical-tragical-historical spectrum. This sort of thing is part of a long storytelling tradition (Shakespeare is riddled with it), but here the result is a sense of stylistic clash, not balance. There are several operant premises here. While the dramatic parts are meant to be taken seriously, the comedy is meant to be taken ironically. This might partly be a result of Perry's wavering directorial control. When he steps out boldly, as in the film's wild finish, we're willing to follow him into bizarre territory. But as the early story suffers from a timid, conventional narrative approach, it's all too easy to get distracted by the stylistic shifts. It's as if Perry found his voice at last, but mostly too late for this film. If you view movies as commerce, that's a shame. But if you see moviemaking as a process, take heart. There's more to come from this filmmaker than Vegas will ever know.