||“Stop it, would you?” the mother of Puck (Devon Gummersall), the protagonist of “The Anarchist Cookbook,” pleads with her son at one point in Jordan Susman’s Dallas-based movie. Viewers may well join in her request. Susman obviously wanted to recapture the raucous, anything-goes atmosphere of independent pictures of the 1970s, but the result resembles only the most irritating of them. This “Cookbook” offers not feast but famine, and is more likely to cause indigestion than contentment.
The picture tries to mimic the attitude of combined flippancy and danger that marked the era of social revolution more than a quarter-century ago, but it comes across as a pale copy, and an insincere one to boot. Nothing in the story of a crew of easygoing self-styled anarchists who are steered into a life of actual nastiness by a fellow who’s the real thing rings true; at its core Susman’s film, despite its subject, is utterly conventional and as eager to please as a puppy dog. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a stuffy young banker who trades in his Brooks Brothers suit for hippie garb hoping that the new clothes will be the key to his success.
Puck, whose name’s Shakespearean links are obviously intended to express his jokingly free-spirited nature, is a suburban kid who’s fallen in with a bunch of communal fringe-dwellers led by cotton-brained ’70s radical Johnny Red (John Savage). The crew includes Johnny’s squeeze Karla (Fina Philips), amiable blockhead Double D (Steve Van Wormer) and musician Sweeney (Johnny Whitworth). These sweet-tempered would-be harbingers of change may enjoy harmless mischief, but they’re not vicious. Their happy hooliganism is changed, however, by the arrival of Johnny Black (Dylan Bruno), a cruelly Machiavellian nihilist who turns them to his own destructive purposes. Everybody suffers, including Puck, who’s arrested and put under house arrest with his family; he also meets a sorority girl named Jody (Kathatine Towne), whose prodding causes him to question his old life. His doubts increase when he links up again with Black, surveys the effect of his malevolent influence, and finds out with horror what his future plans are. A twist ending makes the bad-boy hero a darling of the establishment, though still a mischievous one at heart.
As this precis clearly shows, though “The Anarchist Cookbook” wants to appear edgy and hip, it really boils down to a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism; and in trying to have it both ways, it winds up seeming phony. The irritation the picture engenders by this tightrope-walking act is increased by the characterizations, which are uniformly one-dimensional, and especially by the perpetual narration by Puck, which consists of reams of supposedly clever remarks that resemble the ramblings of a precocious undergraduate who will spare no effort to show off his verbal dexterity without bothering to take a breath or conceive a real thought. The cast doesn’t mitigate the script’s flaws. Gummersall never manages to make Puck very sympathetic, and Savage seems nothing more than a dunderhead; Bruno is even worse--a stiff macho poseur who doesn’t exude the authentic sense of menace his character needs. Of the others, only Van Wormer makes any sort of positive impression as a lovable doofus.
Technically “The Anarchist Cookbook” is no great shakes--the gritty photography and frequently dank lighting have to be forgiven on the basis of the picture’s ostentatiously independent nature--but it’s visually watchable. Whether it’s otherwise tolerable is much more doubtful.