200 Cigarettes

Hip young Hollywood types show up in droves in this hit-and-mostly-miss retro comedy about dating desperation in Manhattan on New Year's Eve. Here it is December 31st, 1981, and Monica (Martha Plimpton) is afraid that no one is going to show up for the bash she's throwing in her East Village apartment. Fat chance. Screenwriter Shana Larsen contrives to pack the place by evening's end, although the party itself is never shown other than in snapshots. It's the preparations for the event and its aftermath that concern Risa Bramon Garcia, the casting whiz who makes her directing debut. And when the script sinks to sitcom drool, there are always the distractions of a new face or the period soundtrack (Elvis Costello, the Cars).

David Chappelle's disco cabby becomes the unifying element as he drives the various characters around town. Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffmann are jailbait in from Long Island, with Noo Yawk accents as thick as their makeup. Guillermo Diaz and Casey Affleck play the punks who only think they've got the balls to handle these 'burb babies. Casey's brother, Ben Affleck, eases into the role of a flirt bartender who comes between two not-so-loyal gal pals (Nicole Parker and Angela Featherstone).

The most irritating episode in this ensemble film involves Jack (Jay Mohr), a conceited actor, and Cindy (Kate Hudson), a ditz queen who has slept with Jack without telling him she was a virgin. Hudson, who strongly resembles her real-life mother, Goldie Hawn, has been mistakenly encouraged to overdo the klutz bit and to imitate mom's patented giggles and mannerisms. And the idea that Jack's charm incites all women to fall in love with him on sight is a thin concept stretched beyond endurance.

Much better is the sparring between Kevin (Paul Rudd) — a painter whose performance-artist lover, Ellie (the ever-witty Janeane Garofalo), has dumped him — and Lucy (Courtney Love), the good friend who listens to Kevin whine, even on New Year's Eve, because she's secretly nuts about him. Love, in hair and makeup that evoke Bette Midler in The Rose, has a natural screen presence and a vulnerability that cuts through Lucy's hard-core attitude. "Are you calling me a slut?" she asks Kevin after daring him to fuck her in a restaurant toilet stall. Believe it or not, this comes off as a tender moment, as does a throwaway scene in which Love duets with a jukebox playing Melissa Manchester singing — can you believe it? — the mushy theme from Ice Castles. At these times, the unruly mess that is 200 Cigarettes is almost easy to love.

 

From The Archives Issue 808: March 18, 1999