200 Cigarettes

In '200 Cigarettes,' the nostalgic '80s new wave soundtrack is the star, but the love stories get lost in shuffle-play.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published February 26, 1999 7:00PM (EST)

As we hurl inexorably toward the 21st century, our PalmPilots and Star-Tacs in tow, it's inevitable that we should experience a longing for a simpler, less superficial time. You know, like the '80s. Though the number of Reagan-era historical epics has increased in recent years -- most notably the 1998 skinny-tie romance "The Wedding Singer" -- "200 Cigarettes" is different. A co-production of MTV Films, it's the Music Television generation's first authentic opus about itself. And from the opening drumbeat of "I Want Candy" to the final strains of Blondie, it's a loving homage to pop culture's shiniest period. As a story, however, it's about as engrossing as a new wave "Love, American Style."

The action takes place over the course of a chaotic, nicotine-stained New Year's Eve in 1981. It's fitting that the movie is set in the year MTV launched; the network's now-familiar stock techniques are all over it. Like an hour and a half episode of "The Real World," "200 Cigarettes" careens between several bite-sized subplots, always moving on to a new set of characters before the previous one can become too tedious or engrossing. It's the formula MTV was built on -- don't like what you're watching? Wait five minutes; something else will come along. And just to drive the MTV metaphor into the ground, the movie rarely eases up on the throbbing, counterpoint-to-the-action soundtrack. A romantic bust-up is scored to "Another One Bites the Dust"; an epiphany is accompanied by "Ready to Take a Chance Again." And "Tainted Love" is so right, it's trotted out twice.

The plots vary widely in their watchability -- from mildly amusing to stupefyingly godawful. Holding all the characters together are David Chappelle as a smooth-talking, soul music-loving, pot-smoking, ladies' man cabbie and Martha Plimpton as the neurotic, thrift shop-chic hostess whose party everyone is heading to. But before the ball can drop, several couples must meet, come together, fight, break up and realign themselves in a seemingly endless romantic roundelay. In the main vignette, Courtney Love, back in the familiar terrain of "skanky ho," goes eye to dewy eye with her sad-sack platonic buddy Paul Rudd. Theirs is the story that bookends the film, and the one to which the most time is devoted. But while Love and Rudd are perfectly believable as teasing, patience-frayed amigos, their chemistry fizzles like so much old Champale when they make the predictable lover's leap.

In fact, although the movie depends largely upon its amorous entanglements and resolutions, the romances seem flat and forced. Brian McArdie is appallingly obnoxious with four different women as the world's worst lay; Christina Ricci sports a Long Island accent as a fun-hungry teen with an "Ew my Gawwwwd" mantra and an imperative to make out with anything that moves; and Jay Mohr and Kate Hudson shift around uncomfortably and knock lots of things over as a commitment-phobic actor and his klutzy, recently deflowered date. Perhaps the film's creators feared that the premise of the film -- one night of high '80s camp -- was not enough to hold the characters together. If that's the case, it would have been better if they'd worked out something more complicated and sustaining (there's a throwaway bit that's never resolved about a mysterious package to be delivered) to pull the story together rather than falling back on sitcom-level romance. If, as the song says, love is the drug, the drug in this case is Nytol. Only one pair, who spend the entire movie apart but wind up at the Brooklyn Bridge together on a bright New Year's morning, seem believably, sweetly right for each other.

But if "200 Cigarettes" flounders as a romantic comedy, you can't blame the ensemble. As individuals trying to get through the most high-pressure night of the year, most of the actors are convincingly exasperated. (It's only when they're straining at affection that things go wrong.) Both Affleck brothers turn in small but consistently funny performances, Ben as a superficially suave but ultimately spazzy bartender, Casey as an eyeliner- and chains-wearing Jersey boy with a far too easily accessible sensitive side. And Janeane Garofalo, angrily lighting up a smoke and snapping about how even her matches are disappointing her, almost single-handedly makes the whole thing worthwhile. When she gets in the back of Chappelle's cab, her blazing hostility and his laid-back Casanova routine combust hilariously, but much too quickly.

Skimpy plot elements aside, as an artifact and a piece of visual wallpaper, the movie does manage to succeed. It may be trite and clichid, but it's still pretty as a pack of Go-Go's in their prime. And any movie that thanks Candie's in its credits can't be all bad. While a large part of its potential audience was undoubtedly not even born in the era in which it's set (and before they start mocking Day-Glo fishnets, let me tell them that someday their kids are going to think baggy pants and piercings are the funniest thing ever), graying members of the "Square Pegs" crowd will appreciate Mark (Devo) Mothersbaugh's score and a soundtrack that includes forgotten classics by Rachel Sweet and Ray, Goodman and Brown.

Unlike "The Wedding Singer," which played fast and loose with its time frame (Flock of Seagulls haircuts in '85? I don't think so), "200 Cigarettes" does achieve an admirable fidelity to the stage upon which it's set. Though its early '80s East Village is staggeringly straight and white, it otherwise reproduces not just the lacquered hairdos and crinolined skirts but the graffiti and furniture-on-the-sidewalk ambience of New York at a particular time. It's an affectionate glimpse of downtown in all its grimy, pre-Giuliani glory.

After the rampant crybabyism of aging boomers we've been subjected to for years, all that pining for their free love and bongs, a little Buzzcocks nostalgia now and again is a lighthearted change of retro pace. But in a year in which all five films nominated for the best picture Oscar are period pieces, one wonders if there'll be much of anything original and creative from today to look back on in 20 years. Though it has its moments, "200 Cigarettes" fails to make an impression because it doesn't have anything new to say about men, women or even Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. The satisfaction of reminiscence is still no match for the joy of discovery, and it's an easy leap from vintage to just plain stale.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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