[19 December 2002]
Has there ever been a film more shrouded in mystery than Don’s Plum? The “experimental” black and white film, shot in 1995, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, first came to prominence in 1998 when its producer, David Stutman, sued the actors for apparently using their industry clout (something they didn’t have at the time the film was made) to block its release. The actors argued that they were told it would never be released, and that they appeared in it only as a favor to director, R.D. Robb (better known as Ralphie’s pal, Schwartz, in A Christmas Story). A year after filing suit, Stutman settled with the actors: the film is banned in North America, but can be distributed around the world. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2001, and has just been released on video and DVD in Australia.
All this hoopla has made the film sound more intriguing than it is. Considering the lengths to which Maguire and DiCaprio went, one would be forgiven for thinking it was shocking, horrible, and generally too outrageous for their impressionable fans (and critics) to see. In fact, there is nothing shocking about Don’s Plum, or the performances of its young stars. The whole affair is rather unexceptional, and more often than not, quite boring.
“Don’s Plum” refers to the local diner where four guys hang out. They bring different dates each week and discuss their personal lives. This gaggle of upper-class whiners covers all bases in the night of conversation chronicled by the film: masturbation, bisexuality, homosexuality, dildos, hookers, heroin, crack, and suicide.
Singled out from the get-go, Derek (DiCaprio) arrives alone on this night and remains the focal point throughout the film. Every conversation begins and ends with him, he instigates all tomfoolery, and he disparages everyone. But, it soon becomes obvious that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Derek. He’s had a bad life, see, and he’s lashing out at everyone else to combat his own feelings of inadequacy. And so the clichés begin.
Also at the table: a bisexual (Scott Bloom), a struggling actor (Kevin Connolly), a sensitive vegetarian (Maguire), a horny lesbian (Heather McComb), a feminist hippie (Buffy‘s Amber Benson), and a self-conscious addict (Jenny Lewis). Each travels a well-worn path of self-discovery during the night. At some point, each goes to the bathroom, where he or she delivers a damning soliloquy into the mirror.
Meanwhile, Derek (who never appears in the bathroom) has a lot to juggle this night. He makes the hippie girl leave in tears, after she stands up to him for calling a fellow diner “a whale.” He berates each of his male friends for the “fake” lives they lead, and after he succumbs to Lewis’ advances, she rejects him. His response is less thoughtful than it might have been: “Girls make me sick!”
In the end, however, after everyone has cracked under the pressure—some worse than others—it’s Derek who brings them all together with his “in ten years this night won’t even matter” Band-Aid. Our misfits head off into the early morning, the audience left wondering what next week will bring, if, at this point, they even care.
The film is rumored to be mostly improvisational (though there are five writers credited—Bethany Ashton, Tawd Beckman, Dale Wheatley, Robb, and Stutman), and DiCaprio’s charged performance as an argumentative, womanising bully is perhaps the film’s only real highlight. He’s one of those characters you love to hate, and DiCaprio keeps the viewer on edge waiting to see just what horrible comment he’ll come out with next. Stutman would have us believe DiCaprio wished the film banned because this awful character was so close to DiCaprio’s real-life personality. This idea doesn’t hold much weight, as, when watching the film as it’s quite obvious DiCaprio is simply trying to shock his fellow actors with his rudeness, as they often hit back at him, goading him, breaking character entirely.
In June of 1998, New York Magazine reported Stutman believes the same thing about Maguire, that the actor wished to have the film banned due to his concern that “improvisational comments he had made during the film revealed personal experiences or tendencies that would undermine [his] public image.” Yet, this claim is also not supported by the film: Maguire has little screen time and none of it reveals anything extraordinary.
Though DiCaprio spends the entire film acting like a complete asshole, using the most degrading terms to one-up his contemporaries, including “cunt,” with his superstardom following 1997’s Titanic, it’s bizarre to think that the actor, then commanding $20 million per picture, would need to be worried about some relatively insignificant little flick he made three years previous.
For the actor’s at least, it seems, therefore, that the banning of Don’s Plum comes down to principles. As DiCaprio’s publicist Nancy Myers stated at the time of the lawsuit, “[The actors] appeared [in the film] with the express agreement that it would never be exhibited as a feature-length motion picture.” If this is indeed true, their case against Stutman is justified, whether the producer’s reason for wishing the film be distributed are artistic (a representative from Zentropa Films, who owns Don’s Plum, referred to Robb in the Dallas Morning News as “a young, independent filmmaker who’s trying to bring a film to the screen”) or financial, capitalising on the success of Maguire and DiCaprio.
Whatever the reason, the actors have lost, and Internet technology has made the film readily available to anyone in the U.S. who may want it. And regardless of how disjointed it may be, its stars needn’t be too concerned as both come off as startling talents and daring performers.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dons-plum/