About ten minutes into Davis Guggenheim’s first feature, Gossip, you might wonder where his college student protagonists are living. Like, what planet? Every exterior is spectacular, noir-urbanish and drenching-rainy, and all interiors (apartments, libraries, dorms) are gargantuan, with 20 foot ceilings and cinder block walls and, for the “party” where the film’s central event does or maybe doesn’t take place (the uncertainty is the point of the gossip), there are added achingly-trendy touches, like musty-colored and artfully broken windows, wrought iron staircases, several floors, and oh yes, an enormous bar with perfectly lit bottles and neon everywhere. At first it’s amusing to imagine such a university, where, only a few short steps from any dorm or class room, there may exist a windy, portentous rooftop or an abandoned greenhouse with great-effect lighting and clay pots strewn about, just waiting to be smashed into some hapless assailant’s skull. But then you come back to yourself, and you realize, it’s a metaphor. A stunningly beautiful, surely meaningful, and sometimes distracting metaphor.
As metaphor, the film’s extreme look its architecture, camera angles, weather externalizes the characters’ extreme emotional (and occasionally mental) states. Along with the elaborate set design and chiaroscuro shadows, the film deploys any number of mood-altering effects: time-lapsing student bodies in hallways, multiple mouths in teeth-clicking close ups, a soundtrack thumping with heartbeats and whispers (“Can you hear me?”) and deep-dark music (by former psychiatric social worker and new wave musician Graeme Revell). This extreme look would seem to be a curious amalgamation of the many talents and experiences involved in its making: you can see bits from Guggenheim’s previous TV background (Party of Five, ER, and NYPD Blue episodes); original director and eventual executive producer Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners and Lost Boys; production designer David (Taxi Driver) Nichols; and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak’s surreal sensibility (he recently directed Romeo Must Die).
James Marsden, Lena Headey, Norman Reedus, Kate Hudson, Joshua Jackson, Marisa Coughlin, Eric Bogosian, Edward James Olmos
As metaphor, these splendid visuals just seem to be. The script by Gregory (*Rosewood*) Poirier and Theresa (Harriet the Spy) Rebeck doesn’t spend much time explaining how such a picturesque locale might exist within reach of rock stars, much less undergraduates. (The film was shot in Montreal, but clearly is not set there or anywhere else that would be so cost-cutting.) Characters make vague references made to the extraordinary wealth of devilishly handsome Derrick Webb (James Marsden, Katie Holmes’ co-star in Disturbing Behavior and soon to play Cyclops in X-Men), who has a trust fund but no visible contact with his parents. (For that matter, there’s not a parent in sight in Gossip.) Derrick’s multi-level loft apartment and bank account are large enough that he supports two needy roommates, funky part-time-job-girl Cathy Jones (Lena Headey) and geeky art-boy Travis (Norman Reedus), over whom he lords how much they “owe” him: you might see immediately how the film’s schematic morality breaks down here as usual, rich people are bad, even though everyone in the film aspires to be rich, or to look rich but Jones and Travis are a bit slow on the uptake, which leads them to make several egregious errors in judgment and allows the plot to, um, develop.
The three roommates hang out a lot, lolling about their swank space, drinking, smoking cigarettes, going to bars, drinking, going to parties, and drinking. Occasionally they go to class, in particular, a communication studies lecture class, where they endure Professor Goodwin’s (Eric Bogosian, paying the rent) prattling on about the amorality of tabloid culture and infotainment. Goodwin’s growly disapproval presumes that there were “good old days” when news and gossip were plainly discrete, and the movie doesn’t challenge that quaint presumption; instead, it makes a rather overwrought case against libelous or ill-considered language, and the general meanness of privileged kids like Derrick. Not incidentally, Derrick is also the one who’s always handing round drinks at the apartment, whenever the roommates are having a heart-to-heart. The film’s anti-drinking argument is somewhat muddled by the fact that it makes all this excess look so good, but for the most part, its many drinking scenes result in kids passing out, puking, or having unwanted sex.
The designated “good” characters drink as well, but they suffer for it, and more importantly, learn from their suffering. These good characters also spend a few minutes not drinking, so you can see that they are coerced by peer pressure more than they are inclined to excess on their own. Jones is introduced at the library: the film opens with a sensational overhead tracking shot of this austere space, where every student and there are rows and rows of them, all bent over their books has a separate, polished dark-wood desk with a swell green lamp. And, to make sure you see she is not wealthy, you also see Jones at work, flipping burgers at a local eatery. Still, the first scene at the library cuts to Jones preparing to party: she slips into a splendid red cocktail dress and spiky heels, makes up her face, and hies to the bar where she’s to meet Derrick and Travis.
At this first bar scene, you learn what you need to know about Travis. He’s sensitive and strange, and unlike his chums, maintains a relatively low-key, though also styley) wardrobe, tending to raggedy coats and paint-spattered t-shirts. At the bar, Jones and Derrick encourage Travis to hit on a cute girl, who rebuffs his awkward handshake. Upon witnessing this disaster-in-the-making, Jones and Derrick spread the story that their boy is a famous rock star’s child. Immediately, the barkeep buys all three of them a round and cleavagey girls are lining up to talk to Travis, while Jones and Derrick smirk at one another. Ah-ha, you say to yourself, here’s the set-up: gossip is fun… until it hurts someone.
This lesson emerges in what might be termed the “plot.” Derrick, Jones, and Travis decide that for their communication class project, they’ll start a rumor and trace its permutations. And so: they say moneyed and notoriously virginal Naomi (Kate Hudson) had drunken sex with her nice guy beau, Beau (Joshua Jackson), a story which evolves into date-rape, suicide, and homicide accusations. That is, the project turns sour quickly, especially as Naomi goes through a fairly public meltdown. A pair of police detectives (including Sharon Lawrence, reliving her NYPD Blue glory days?) investigate the date-rape charges, with much drama. On the occasion of Beau’s arrest at school, of course, for the theatricality of it the detectives arrive with a couple of dour uniforms, walking through the hallways in slow motion, their trench coats billowing and backlit. Dazzling as this image is, in fact, the film’s third detective is its most significant: just when you’re thinking again that Gossip has no notion of reality, no referent or reason, suddenly there’s a foreboding knock-knock on Derrick’s door. He opens it, and voila! Edward James Olmos, looking so very solemn and laconic. And then you get it. The rain, the darkness, the lack of sense: Gossip is a college students’ fever dream version of Blade Runner!
This would be fine to go along with, but still, Gossip soldiers on, setting up motives and situations. Jones being the girl, being “emotional” (as Derrick accuses her) frets out loud that their prank has turned “ugly” (a description that is frankly hilarious, in the midst of all the gorgeousness the film is laying on so thickly). Despite her concerns, however, she succumbs to her movie-scripted desires and has sex with the obviously despicable Derrick. The next day, she happens upon some information that suggests Derrick has been dishonest with her. Naturally, she drinks and frets some more. You want to like Jones: she’s obviously the film’s moral center and she wears such great outfits! But her behaviors are maddening. And so, you may look elsewhere, say, to Travis. Though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, this waif does make crucial appearances, outside Naomi’s room just after she has an outrageous biting-slapping-and-nails-clawing fight with Derrick, listening in on that sex scene between Jones and Derrick.
Travis is, then, the film’s conscience, its wounded soul, and in that role, he appropriately doesn’t say much. Instead, he observes and reports, not as a journalist or academic (these being inevitably corrupt in the film’s/Goodwin’s not-so-imaginative economy), but as an artist. He makes lots of art. Everywhere. Travis works with multiple computer monitors and digital editing programs. He decorates the apartment with portraits of his roommates (Jones’s likeness appears on their sofa, with her mouth ominously missing), and covers the walls of his room with floor-to-ceiling pictures. These collages are half-painted, half-blown up digitized photos; they’re chipped, torn, eerie. And as the gossip and its effects turn increasingly “ugly,” Travis’s artwork becomes increasingly violent. The multi-wall collage depicts bullets unsubtly labeled with the word “words,” as they fly toward a victim’s head. Deep.
Not so surprisingly, when it comes time to find a culprit for all the damage, Travis starts to look a little suspicious, precisely because of his obsessive imaging. And here he embodies the film’s own aesthetic and its most incisive (and accidental?) insight, that in a media-saturated universe, such as the one the students inhabit, images create and, indeed, are a valid reality, however internal, hurtful, or extreme. While it ends up being a very conventional moral argument against terrible words (being mean), Gossip‘s more potent subject, the one it only gets at in its surface its excessive look is the free-floating process of gossip, the slipperiness of meaning and desire.