"I never drink with the help!"
You know you’re in trouble when a movie’s idea of a topical joke is a blue dress stained with semen. (How 1999!) Sadly, this dress is The In Crowd‘s most up-to-date reference. Everything else in sight is way creaky, including its gorgeous, painfully wealthy twentysomething protagonists, heavy-handed moralizing, and preposterous murder-plot turns. While such lack of imagination is hardly unusual, it’s still a drag.
The In Crowd‘s script, by Mark Gibson and Phil Halprin, is extremely predictable (to the point that Warners’ request that reviewers not give away the “film’s ending” is a joke in itself). The basic opposition is between a good, blond, middle-class tomboy, named (so androgynously) Adrien (Lori Heuring, who survived The Newton Boys, only to be ranked #64 on Maxim magazine’s “Hot List”) and a bad, brunette, rich Brenda-Walsh-wannabe named (sigh) Brittany (Sunset Beach‘s Susan Ward). These pretty girls go through the usual paces: they pretend to be friends, compete for a boy, and wind up in a bloody, muddy smackdown dressed in party gowns.
At the beginning, Adrien is just being released from a mental hospital and is worried about making it “outside,” which suggests that maybe the film will consider the social issues surrounding institutionalization, prejudices against emotionally damaged folks, the ways that class or gender identifications mess with your head, the power dynamics between doctors and younger patients, you name it. But no. This movie is strictly silly. Turns out that Adrien’s been committed because, when she was in high school, she obsessed over her shrink and smashed his car windshield with her field hockey stick (this last bit is revealed later in the film, during a flashback-style confession, but really, it’s hard to care about the reason for her hospitalization by the time you find it out). Adrien wants so much to do well for her new mentor-shrink, Dr. Thompson (Daniel Hugh Kelly, who should have quit while he was ahead, back in Cujo), that she agrees to what is plainly a very bad idea: she’ll continue her rehab under his watchful eye, working at a country club where he happens to be a member.
At this point, Adrien meets Brittany, who is understandably struck by the amazing coincidence that Adrien looks omigod! exactly like her long-missing sister Sandra (pronounced “Saaaaundra” by everyone who breathes her hallowed name). Well, as you might imagine, everyone is soon buzzing with the news. Plus, the tennis pro, Matt (Matthew Settle) looks poised to like Adrien. So Brittany, feeling threatened by her for an as-yet-unknown-but-not-hard-to-figure reason, invites Adrien in to “the in crowd” rather than treat her like underclass dirt, which is what most everyone else is inclined to do (as one snooty girl puts it, “I never drink with the help!”). Adrien, apparently braindead owing to her time “away,” goes along with everything that Brittany suggests, even when she’s warned repeatedly to steer clear of this obviously egomaniacal, manipulative psycho-bitch. Grisly murders follow.
Movies featuring young up-and-coming starlets male and female are notorious for abusing them, making them look scatty and lustful, just waiting to be assaulted by the latest knife-wielding fiend with a mother-complex and a catchphrase. Though tv series featuring teens and young adults have lately allotted them longer life expectancies and even, on occasion, “issues” beyond pool parties and high school bullies, the majority of adult-made, teen-targeted media continues to show kids’ concerns as trivial or lunatic or both. The In Crowd is like that. Or actually, it’s worse, making atrocious and piddly-wrong-headed decisions at every point that a more subtle one might have been made. Director Mary Lambert has had, let’s say, an erratic career: she directed Madonna’s “Borderline” and “Material Girl” videos way back when, and then made the decent Pet Sematary and its less good sequel, as well as the incomprehensible Siesta, with Ellen Barkin as a bedraggled and oh yes, dead, airplane pilot. But it’s unlikely that any human director could have salvaged The In Crowd, which likely never had a point of rightness from which to go wrong.
Adrien, of course, must survive her friendship with Brittany and then play Nancy Drew, solving the various cases that come before her Sandra’s disappearance and the string of murders of people whom Brittany doesn’t like while also salvaging her own sanity and perhaps leaving room for a romance with Matt. In between, she flirts with the idea of being “in,” which apparently means doing your hair in elaborate ways (how she fined the time for it is the film’s most intriguing mystery), drinking cocktails, lounging by the pool, and dancing lasciviously at a local club, in a manner that recalls the Michael Douglas-Sharon Stone-Leilani Sarelle threeway in Basic Instinct. (How 1992!) I suppose the fact that Brittany has sex with everyone from the country club boys to a man old enough to be her father to a country club girl (Kelly, played with pinched-face resentment by Laurie Fortier) says something about evolving boundaries of sexualities and identities in the movie-and-TV business. No one seems to care that her partners are so numerous or so varied, though, now that I think about it, no one actually knows about all her exploits.
The movie makes sure that you know that Brittany is very mean. She’s so determined to get her way be the most popular girl at the club that she’ll leave one victim to drown, alone in the ocean late at night, and beat another to a bloody pulp with a golf club, in the cellar where they keep the caviar. Brittany’s badness is so fantastic that it’s hard to care much whether she gets caught or if she kills her clueless prey or wins the useless Matt. Really, they all just deserve each other.
But that’s too easy, and besides, it’s the sentiment that the film banks on, that you’ll also believe that the upper class kids are bad by definition, and most certainly, they are nothing to which good girls should aspire. This pedestrian good-bad class dichotomy is exacerbated by the fact that Adrien’s only “friends” (at least they wear shorts and t shirts that resemble hers) are her fellow workers, Joanne (Kim Murphy) and the mentally challenged gardener Wayne (A.J. Buckley), and then, at the last minute, one of the wastrel country clubbers, Bobby (Nathan Bexton, last seen communing with a cat while high on Ecstasy in Go). Significantly, Wayne and Adrien bond over a bit of high art, a postcard she has in her room, of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, which represents… jeez, you know what it represents. Adrien’s illness and perpetual yearning for what she doesn’t have lead her to identify with the picture (and make her a lot like Brittany, but we’ll let that go). And by the time The In Crowd is over, you’ll be doing some serious yearning of your own: to have it all be over.