Is anyone really shocked to find out that Calvin Klein-level designers are fey, waffling, deluded egomaniacs that willingly surround themselves with babysitting sycophants?"
GarmentoDirector: Michele Maher
Cast: David Thornton, Katie MacNichol, Jerry Grayson, Saundra Santiago
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Spanish Moss Productions
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-06-06 (Limited release)
When a friend of mine asked me to describe Michele Maher's Garmento, I called it a "toothless exposé about the dark corners of the fashion industry." Off the cuff, his response completely nailed the movie's great undoing: "Making an 'exposé about the darker corners of the fashion industry' is like making an expose about the Taliban: we already know they suck, dude."
Which is priceless and 100% right on. Is anyone really shocked to find out that Calvin Klein-level designers are fey, waffling, deluded egomaniacs that willingly surround themselves with babysitting sycophants? Does it surprise anyone living in the Western world in 2003 that rich assholes living totally insular lives in Manhattan take limousines to fancy restaurants where they drink expensive champagne and sling empty epithets like "The key to happiness is money" (which, by the way, is a central, repeated line in this movie, for real)?
Actually, I don't even care if the answer to any of the above is "yes." The point is, it shouldn't be. Fashion is an industry that puts such a high premium on style over substance that it actually eliminates substance from the equation. Beauty and money are more important cultural capital than anything conceivable, and if you don't see that, you must be ugly or broke.
It's also an institution that counts on disposability to keep its pockets lined. It's a perfect Euro-American cocktail, bringing high concept "designs" to the shopping mall and giving everyone with sallow cheeks and a pretty ribcage a crack at that all-important celebrity culture. In other words, the fashion world is, at face value and without the need of too much excavation, by design and definition a microcosm of what's wrong with modern life in McWorld, to borrow a phrase.
Maybe Maher, who used to work as a junior designer in the NYC Garment District, thinks she thinks that way too (her film is being sold as some sort of darkly comic critique), but her convictions come across way too playfully and in too soft a focus. Garmento is a bunt single where you need a grand slam, and the problem is, I don't think she ever tried to swing that hard in the first place.
Because if Garmento isn't lazy, if this is concerted effort, then it's just inexcusably flawed and I can't really figure out how it leapfrogged low-grade, late night Showtime straight into boutique, art house hype. Maher gives us caricature over character every time, settling for cliché over development and hoping the film can coast on cute, kitschy idiosyncrasies. It can't. One of the main reasons Garmento is such a failure as an exposé is that nothing about any of these characters feels like it's being exposed at all. You know everything about them at first glance -- they are trite and transparent placeholders for real people who never show up.
The actors don't help, as clueless and obvious as the words stuffed awkwardly in their mouths. Everyone is guilty, from Juan Hernandez's see-through, vamped up Klein-a-like Poncho Ramirez to Peter Gallagher-clone David Thornton's Ronnie Grossman, Poncho's absurdly wealthy and ethically crippled business partner. Thornton plays Grossman's steady descent down the slippery slope from IPO-toting company bigwig to street-corner garment jobber with a series of shrugs, shoulder slumps, furrowed brows, muted vocal explosions, and phony smiles. It looks more like the actor's handcuffed response to his poorly written part than his character's reaction to the destructive whirlwind he's riding.
Of particular note (and that's definitely a bad distinction in this case) is Kate MacNichol, who plays the film's rotting conscience Grindy, a golly-gee-gumdrops archetype on hand to prove that absolute power and wealth corrupt absolutely everything absolutely, especially naïve bumpkins with the best intentions. Grindy is a composite of foregone conclusions from the word go, a lame pastiche of baseball-bat-to-the-head level signifiers. She shows up at her first interview at Poncho Ramirez Inc. dressed like an Avon saleslady, orders Long Island Iced Teas at a velvet rope, VIP-trendy bar (much to the disdain of her embarrassed coworkers), and appears to be the last person alive to find the flipside of "The key to happiness is money" to be "Money is the root of all evil."
Maher writes the role as shrilly and predictably as MacNichol plays it: from the first time you lay eyes on Grindy, you know this lil' girl in the big bad city will be corrupted into a chicly-dressed grade-A bitch with a bob cut by Act 3, grabbing feverishly for fistfuls of money and shreds of refracted limelight. MacNichol's wooden line readings, hyperactive facial tics and complete willingness to match the script blow for bloodless blow just dig the wide hole deeper. The ludicrous non sequitur Maher decides to drop on Grindy in the last five minutes might break every cardinal rule of Screenwriting 101, but you won't be too angry; if you're anything like me, you'll just be wondering why she couldn't have done it sooner.
Or, if you're a less vindictive, more forgiving soul, you'll just find yourself wondering why you're watching a movie about her in the first place. Garmento never bothers to lift a manicured finger in its own defense, so I'm not about to. You're better suited renting Pret-a-Porter, which is also garbage, but at least it's not recycled. You're actually best off not looking too hard into anything promising a juicy send-up of something as hollow and unnecessary of a single second's more attention for the rest of time than the fucking fashion industry. There's probably a sick Geraldo behind-the-scenes about the Taliban on somewhere right now anyway.