||Documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato made a non-fiction movie titled “Party Monster” in 1998, about Michael Alig, the New York “club kid” who represented the cult of empty celebrity in the early ’90s and was ultimately convicted of killing one of his hangers-on, who also happened to be his drug supplier. Now they’ve chosen to retell the story as a garish docudrama under the same title. Like their subject, they should have quit when they were ahead.
The story is actually a simple one. Alig arrives in Manhattan a naif, trying to break into the club scene but having no success until he falls in with James St. James, an established character who’s virtually perfected the art of the flamboyantly grotesque costume. Under St. James’s mentoring, Michael–not only a quick study but a kind of genius of self-promotion–becomes the dominant figure in the culture; in fact, he wheedles his way into the employ of club owner Peter Gatien, whose Limelight he turns into the epicenter of the entire hey-look-at-how-outrageous-I-am movement. Initially aghast at the very idea of drug use, Alig soon turns on, in the process replacing his first significant other Keoki, whom he’s instrumental in transforming into a popular DJ, with an adoring fellow named Angel, whose trademark garb is a pair of giant wings and who is also an accomplished distributor of illegal pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, the drug trade and the haze it generates change the whole scene, and before long Alig is a mess. When Angel threatens him if he doesn’t pay for all the junk he’s consumed, Michael and an equally addled chum named Freez kill the demanding fellow with a hammer and some drain-cleaner. End of party.
This isn’t really much more than a typical cautionary tale about a kid sucked into bad behavior that ultimately turns self-destructive. But it’s not the narrative arc that’s the major interest of “Party Monster”–the movie is intentionally as empty as the glam posing of the participants. What’s meant to engage us instead is the recreation of the glitzy ambience and the devil-may-care, shock-’em-till-they-glow ’tude of the movement’s ringleaders, especially Alig. And in its messy, technically careless way, the picture does manage to convey the combination of neon overkill and squalor that marked the entire episode. The production design (Andrea Stanley), art direction (Laura Ballinger), set decoration (Susan Ogu) and costume design (Michael Wilkinson) are strikingly successful, given the modest budget.
But as a human document “Party Monster” is pretty much a disaster. It does have one very strong element: a remarkable performance by Seth Green as the supremely arch, smugly self-satisfied St. James. Green’s turn seems absolutely right, at once hilariously over-the-top and completely natural. His affection reaches a transcendent level: this isn’t merely an impersonation, it’s a genuine re-creation. Unfortunately, no one else comes near to matching him. That’s particularly true of Macaulay Culkin’s portrayal--if one can call it that–-of Alig. It’s been six years since the actor’s last appearance on screen, and if this is typical of the sort of work he’s capable of, one wouldn’t regret a similar delay before he returns to celluloid again. Not a single moment of Culkin’s turn strikes one as remotely authentic; every gesture and line reading seems not just forced and false, but unbearably so. One feels embarrassed witnessing such a wrongheaded exhibition. The rest of the cast is simply unimpressive. Dylan McDermott as Gatien, Wilson Cruz as Angel, Wilmer Valderrama as Keoki and Chloe Sevigny as Gitsie (another devotee) aren’t asked to do much, and they respond with lethargic turns. (It is nice, however, to see Mia Kirshner as Gatien's domineering wife, even if she's pretty much reduced to background noise.)
But it’s unfair to blame the actors too much. They don’t seem to have received very strong guidance from Bailey and Barbato, who appear to have followed the more laissez-faire directorial attitude that marks documentary filmmaking and failed to impose a strong hand on the proceedings. The result is that the movie comes across as shapeless and sloppy, with scenes that barely seem to be composed or constructed at all. In such a context the performances can hardly flourish; it’s amazing that Green distinguishes himself in this atmosphere.
In fact, he’s about the only reason to endure this “Party Monster” at all. If you’re interested in the curious movement the picture dramatizes so ineffectually, you’d be well advised to search out Bailey and Barbato’s documentary rather than this ill-advised adjunct to it.