“Jesus, this looks bad,” Travis Davis, playing a truck driver, observes near the beginning of Dewey Nicks’ feature debut, one of those college comedies whose main topics are sex, drugs, sex, cheating, sex and alcohol. He knows whereof he speaks. “Slackers” turns out to be so astonishingly awful that there aren’t enough negative adjectives in the dictionary to do it full justice. Putrid, rancid, vile, revolting, repulsive, appalling–all of these apply, but none of them is sufficient. Perhaps if one resorted to profanity, he might reach the appropriate level of indignation, but as Richard Nixon once said, that would be wrong.
The title of the flick refers to three seniors loafing their way toward graduation at a happily fictional school. Dave (Devon Sawa), Sam (Jason Segel) and Jeff (Michael C. Maronna) are roommates who’ve made it to final exams by cribbing tests and passing classes through convoluted schemes and scams. Unfortunately, a weird fellow student named Ethan (Jason Schwartzman) catches Dave cheating on a physics final, and threatens to turn the unsavory trio in unless they help him link up with the classmate he’s obsessed with–the beauteous Angela (James King). Unfortunately, as Dave–the Lothario of the group–presses Ethan’s attentions upon the girl in crude “Cyrano” style, he falls for her himself, and she for him. The furious Ethan then aims to destroy the budding romance and bring the guys down; and they in turn concoct an elaborate plot to destroy him first.
This threadbare narrative could probably never have made much of a movie, but it might have served at least as the basis for an innocuous one. As it’s presented in this instance, though, the result is almost grotesquely vulgar, in the style of those who emulate the Farrelly brothers very badly. Our three “heroes” are utter slimeballs, loathsome from the get-go, and they don’t improve as the story grinds on. One only wishes they’d all been expelled in the first ten minutes so that the movie could then have focused on somebody else. Segel and Maronna are more offensive than Sawa–Moronna’s sock-puppet scene is probably the nadir–but Devon doesn’t escape condemnation either; he’s so aggressively smarmy that he seems a second-rate version of Anthony Michael Hall (and I refer to the older, has-been Hall, not the young, promising one).
But as awful as the parts of “Slackers” centering on them are, it’s the character of Ethan that makes the picture truly atrocious. Presumably Schwartzman’s manic freakiness is intended to be funny, but it doesn’t come off that way; as played here, Ethan is truly creepy–a seriously deranged, and probably dangerous, person. Dark humor is one thing; but Schwartzman is all darkness and no humor.
The girls fare no better. King is pretty but airheaded, and her character is incredibly dumb. An even worse fate befalls Laura Prepon (Donna from “That ’70s Show”), who has to play Angela’s roommate as a hard-as-dominatrix type and do an utterly gratuitous masturbation scene. To cover all age bases from the standpoint of offense, Mamie Van Doren appears briefly as a hospital patient and is compelled to exhibit her fabled endowments in the grossest possible fashion. For some reason, Cameron Diaz and Gina Gershon show up to do thankless cameos. Presumably they lost a bet of some sort.
Thus far, however, we’ve been considering “Slackers” merely from the perspective of its sliminess and bad acting. It’s also terribly made: it lurches along without any pacing or tempo, as though it had been edited by machete. The sloppiness and incoherence make things all the more gruesome: often it’s impossible to understamd what’s happening or why (to be sure, that’s probably a blessing). And coming as it does from a top fashion photographer and commercial and music video director, the film looks rotten–like a poverty-row reject. Technically it’s junk, too.
In a way, “Slackers” does the moviegoing public of 2002 a considerable benefit. Last year it took Hollywood nearly six months to descend to the “Freddy Got Fingered” level. This year we’ve gotten there by the beginning of February, and with luck, this will be as bad as it gets. That’s the cinematic equivalent of having a badly decayed tooth pulled quickly rather than allowing it to fester interminably. It hardly constitutes a pleasure, but at only 87 minutes, at least the pain doesn’t linger too long. And as I’ve noted before, “F” is as low as we go here–more’s the pity.