A few years back Newmarket blundered in its distribution scheme for “Donnie Darko,” one of the most auspicious debut features of recent years, by advertising the surrealistic tale of teen angst as though it were a typical high school comedy, and the film sank like a stone in wide release. (It’s since re-emerged as a cult classic, even spawning a re-issued–and unfortunately inferior–director’s cut, but that’s an instance of playing catch-up.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that the little company is trying to recapture the magic with Arie Posin’s “The Chumscrubber,” another off-center portrait of teen life, and is releasing it more imaginatively, opening it first in smaller markets and planning to expand to the larger ones. But though the commercial presentation may be more astute this time around, the product being hawked is nowhere near as good. Besides being stuck with one of the most disagreeable titles in recent memory–the term apparently refers to a ship’s mate who washes the muck of bait off the hull of a ship, but here by extension indicates anybody who cleans up a mess–Posin’s picture is largely a misfire with some brilliant nuggets along the way (and a superb cast). It’s not quite a clump of bloody refuse that needs to be swabbed off the screen, but it is a shrill, simple-minded satire that makes the most obvious points in a fashion more contrived than clever.
Jamie Bell, doing another fine American accent, plays Dean Stiffle, a disaffected suburban teen who discovers that his only friend Troy Johnson (Josh Janowicz), the campus drug-pusher who lives next door, has hanged himself–and doesn’t bother to tell anyone about it. It’s not long before school bully Billy (Justin Chatwin)–aided by his sensitive girlfriend Crystal (Camilla Belle) and his obsequious sidekick Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci)–pressures Dean to turn over Troy’s stash of pills to him; to force his compliance, they plan to kidnap Dean’s younger brother Charlie (Rory Culkin), but by mistake grab the wrong kid, Charlie Bratley (Thomas Curtis), instead. That covers the younger half of the large ensemble cast. On the upper side of the age line are a bevy of parents disconnected from their kids and clueless about their problems and dilemmas. Glenn Close plays Mrs. Johnson, who tries to cope with the devastation caused by her son’s death–and her inability to understand the reasons behind it–by frenzied activity. Meanwhile Dean’s parents haphazardly address their son’s apparent blankness over his friend’s death, but in their own self-absorbed ways. Dad Bill (William Fichtner), a psychologist who’s used his son as the focal point of his best-selling books for years, gives him medication that simply replaces what he’s no longer getting from Troy; mom (Allison Janney) is concerned, but more anxious over her vitamin business. Billy’s father is careless about what his son does (and apparently a brute, too), while Lee’s mother and father (Jason Isaacs and Caroline Goodall) are simply oblivious. Certainly the most obtuse and disconnected of the bunch, though, is Terri Bratley (Rita Wilson), an interior decorator who’s unaware that her son is missing for days; she’s too busy preparing her wedding to Mayor Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes), who’s being harassed by her ex, Police Chief Bratley (John Heard) and is undergoing a sort-of breakdown impelling him to give up the political rat race and seek fulfillment as an artist. Bumbling Chief Bratley, meanwhile, is fixated on toughening his son by having him bulk up.
That’s an awful lot of characters for a script to deal with, but Posin and writer Zac Stanford handle the difficulty by simply painting virtually all of them in the broadest possible strokes and then having the cast play them like caricatures. Despite a few genuinely affecting moments–the most notable being the “resolution” scene at the end between Bell and Close, when Dean and Mrs. Johnson connect to finally come to terms with their shared loss–most of “The Chumscrubber” comes across as a pastiche of easy jibes at suburbia and stale commonplaces about the chasm that exists between parents and children in that sterile environment. The idea that it’s a mess that needs cleaning up is hardly a new one, and its representation by the title character, a post-apocalyptic video-game figure that carries his disconnected head in his hand and apparently thrashes zombie-like opponents, is at once obvious and obscure. (Is Dean, who ultimately solves the immediate problem, the savior, or is it the dead Troy, who reappears and explicitly takes on that persona?) And what’s the point behind the mayor’s increasingly weird behavior, which culminates in his chucking the highly-ordered society his post represents and opting instead for the unfettered life of a painter–something that’s associated in his mind with dolphin imagery? And, of course, the issue of altering an unhappy reality–overmedicating kids, using performance-enhancing drugs, promoting dietary supplements–is a constant theme, but merely reiterating it in a jokey way isn’t the same thing as giving it a real satiric edge. Despite the fact that it moves with a deliberation meant to emphasize the emotional stasis of the neighborhood and the characters’ cluelessness, the picture is most notable for trying to make too many points, none of which it digs into very deeply.
Along the way, though one can appreciate a few of the performances. Bell has to play reserved and passive here, but he manages to make the still, reactive Dean a sympathetic, even magnetic figure, and though Close mostly comes on too strong as the grieving mother, she rallies at the end to give a touching note to Mrs. Johnson in that last sequence with Dean. Falls endows Crystal with a bit of vulnerability to go along with her hard-nosed view of things. But virtually all the others overplay, especially the adults. Fiennes is stuck in am especially sad state. He looks genuinely bewildered as Mayor Ebbs, but the bewilderment seems less to belong to the character than to the actor. (It’s a reaction you’re likely to share.) The behind-the-scenes crew (production designer Patti Podesta, art director Christopher Tandon and set decorator Maria Nay) have provided the sort of falsely colorful, obsessively clean neighbrhood the story demands, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher has shot it with a brightness intended to accentuate the planned-community-with-a-vengeance quality of the place. But what goes on in front of the settings proves that their sterility is all too complete.
The end result is a movie that wants to be daring but ends up feeling prefabricated.