In With the Out Crowd
There's really only one reason to see Party Monster, and that's Seth Green's scene-stealing performance as former (and somewhat reluctant) New York club kid James St. James, the boy who would be queen. It's a performance that could have easily been reduced to mannerisms and wisecracks, but Green turns it into something witty, layered; you want the camera to stay on him. (Marilyn Manson's brief turn as Christina, a mutant drag queen, is also wickedly inspired.) Unfortunately, Green's is only a supporting role. The film was meant to be Macaulay Culkin's triumphant career comeback, an outr role—that of Michael Alig, the former club kid extraordinaire turned druggie murderer—that would prove not only that the former Home Alone cherub has acting chops, but that he also possesses a willingness to push the envelope. But with his arms akimbo, a mincing walk and a watery Bette Davis accent, he's simply a host of fag clichs draped over a void.
The film itself, based on St. James' book, Disco Bloodbath, charts the real-life rise and drug-fueled fall of both Alig and the post–Andy Warhol, Big Apple club scene that Alig created. Arriving wide-eyed but ambitious from the Midwest, Alig immediately attached himself to James St. James (who was then perched in the upper echelons of the fabulous people) and, like a latter-day Eve Harrington, set about taking over the withering club scene. Warhol's death made the coup that much easier. Armed with a bottomless imagination for decadence (which the film only fitfully captures), Alig soon networked himself into the position of an urban pied piper, creating a scene where outcasts, misfits and losers could let their freak flag fly. He molded superstars in the manner of Warhol, with drug dealers as his favorite clay. Predictably, he spun out of control, decadence turned to debauchery, and the whole scene came crashing down with Alig's role in the murder of Angel, a young Puerto Rican drug dealer (played in the film by Wilson Cruz with a sweet, palpable longing) who wanted desperately to belong but could never rise above being the butt of the "new" cool kids' jokes.
Using Culkin as Alig is a crippling misstep from which the film never recovers. He casts no charm, no charisma, nothing to explain how and why people would follow Alig and do his bidding. His soulless bitchiness grates from the start, and by the midway point of the film he—and the film itself—has simply become a bore. The bigger problem is that directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (who also directed the marginally better 1998 documentary of the same name, on the same subject) are too enamored of the tawdry tale to actually say anything with or about it. Had they opened it up, sketched the larger cultural and political canvas against which the club kids were created—What was happening in art, music, politics and the larger culture? Where's the sex?—the film might have had some sort of depth or resonance, or at least some bite.
It's ludicrous, of course, to suggest that the subculture Alig & Co. populated had anything like the weight or meaning of punk, hip-hop or even the disco scene that predated them, but there's something to be gleaned from this crowd, whose senses of fabulousness and entitlement far outstripped any real achievement or talent, whose mantra of "money, success, fame, glamour" foreshadowed the bling! bling!mentality that courses through contemporary pop culture. They're the American dream updated and turned inside out; their vulgarity, arrogance and destructiveness are not anomalies but, rather, defining elements of the American character, or at least its underbelly. But Bailey and Barbato don't bring politics or cultural insight to the tale. They bring precious little anything, in fact.
Party Monster was written and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; produced by Bailey, Barbato, Jon Marcus, Bradford Simpson and Christine Vachon; and stars Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green and Wilson Cruz. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
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