Do not pass "Go"

The follow-up to"Swingers" is an amiable slice of Tarantino Lite.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 9, 1999 5:55PM (EDT)

"Go" is the sort of movie that's so enthusiastically American, you'd almost
think it was directed by a foreigner. In its one-night bacchanal of sex, drugs and a requisite dose of violence, the movie takes the viewer through the wild, wild West of big automobiles, big guns and all-you-can-eat seafood buffets. Leading the expedition are the aimless bumblers who typify both the American dream and its nightmare -- misfits forever finding cash, car keys and horny drunk girls thrown in their direction, but who are just as likely to hurl themselves into the path of something bigger and far less friendly in the process.

Director Doug Liman, who set off an unfortunate explosion of cocktail sipping and jitterbugging among the khakis crowd with his 1996 hit "Swingers," once again treads the Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas territory, this time with a shadier assortment of characters. The action takes place over a short period of time and with three distinct yet overlapping story lines, a device that is so patently "Pulp Fiction" it's embarrassingly obvious to even bring it up (but you'll probably be hard pressed to find a review of "Go" that won't). Unlike the denizens of the Tarantino opus, however, these fuck-ups on the wrong side of the law aren't quite so deeply ensconced in the seedy milieus of drugs and violence. They're youthful day-trippers, passing through the underworld and trying not to get roughed up.

The story begins and ends with Ronna (Sarah Polley from "The Sweet Hereafter"), a bored L.A. grocery store employee about to be kicked out of her apartment for not paying her rent. Luckily, her colleague Simon (Desmond Askew), a pasty-faced part-time drug dealer, is dying to get out of town and needs someone to cover his shift. Her luck gets even better when well-heeled TV actors Adam and Zack (Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr) show up in Simon's checkout line looking for a little more than orange juice and snack cakes.

Over the course of the next several hours, Ronna will wind up buying a sizable packet of pharmaceuticals, losing the goods, making a tidy sum fobbing off baby aspirin as Ecstasy to clueless ravers, being threatened with a gun and run over by a sports car. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Simon is busily crashing weddings, engaging in a tantric minage ` trois, setting hotels on fire,
shooting bouncers and flashing around the wrong guy's credit card. And back in L.A., the two jittery actors are working out relationships,
engaging reluctantly in a sting operation, covering up a crime and discovering, by way of a touchy-feely detective and his wife, just how
open-minded they need to be to get some charges against them dropped.

If all of this sounds like one overstuffed evening, it is. Director Liman and writer John August are determined to cram every moment of "Go" with as much rapture and mayhem as possible -- without having anyone or anything emerge as too over-the-top. Being in their hands is like landing in Santa's lap -- it's a little strange and, at times, disturbing, but you know nobody's going to hurt you. Liman's energy is
inexhaustible, and he manages to stage elaborate fiascoes without making "Go" look overly "Lethal Weapon, Part 17."

In between car crashes and characters shrieking at each other (the film's title is repeated often by desperate characters peeling out of impossible
situations), the director inserts some small, witty moments of odd couplings and strange fantasies that tickle in all the right places. It's in those elusive bursts that everything almost comes together. As in "Swingers," there's a dizzying, stop-you-in-your-tracks dance sequence -- although this one takes place partly in a produce aisle and entirely in the tripped-out imagination of a minor character. There are also weirdly satisfying moments of bickering, exasperated glances and stolen kisses.

The film becomes less interesting when it apes the massively overplayed affable-hoodlum genre (most recently and successfully demonstrated in "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"). Ronna, Simon, Adam and Zack are way out of their depths, but the gods must love amateurs, because they keep bobbing up for air just in the nick of time. And we need another petty-criminals-in-hot-water caper about as much as we need to be told "Family Circus" sucks -- which, by the way, someone in the film tells us, at length.

But if the premise of the film lacks imagination, the cast doesn't. Desmond Askew, as an impish everyman Brit gorging himself at the buffet of Yankee overindulgence, sports such a wicked look of pleasure -- even when he's being shot at -- that he seems to have sprung straight from hell's junior division. Jay Mohr, who has a tendency to overplay in characters that are underwritten, is surprisingly appealing here, in no small part because most of the time he's trying desperately to keep a straight face in order to save his neck. And Sarah Polley, an actress with the biggest eyes and spindliest legs this side of a Keane painting, has a deadpan delivery and a tough Teflon sheen that makes her the most watchable thing in "Go." She's the slightly crazy friend we've all had -- the delicate flower who plunges boldly into danger and winds up surprising everybody. The rest of the players are, by and large, equally adept. If only they had more moments to interact with each other and fewer to dream up half-baked plans for sticking it to the suckers.

After a shooting in a strip club goes awry, a disgusted older character laments that in days gone by, you succeeded by being better than the person in front of you. Now, he observes, you get ahead by being slightly less incompetent than the guy on top. It's not the most encouraging sentiment ever expressed, but it's one the filmmakers anxiously espouse. The secret to getting by, it seems, is to find someone dumber than yourself you can exploit -- and it's rarely that challenging a search. That "one born every minute" premise injects a smug dose of superiority into an otherwise genial adventure, and betrays a cynical lack of imagination. "Go" doesn't know quite what it wants to be -- it's too good-natured to be a true crime story and too "edgy" to be a straightforward comedy. Liman's buoyant direction is almost enough to make one forgive the film its heavily appropriated plot (including its groaner of a punchline). The elusive script fit for Liman's talents has got to be out there somewhere -- this is, after all, the land of opportunity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

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

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