Life is tough for newly-minted Hollywood action star Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser). Sure, he’s got a box office hit (Adrenaline Force), a beautiful wife named Abby (Robin Tunney, slumming), and a tow-headed son, Zach (Blake Bryan). But he’s also got a quartet of sleazy paparazzi — Rex Harper, Wendell Stokes, Kevin Rosner, and Leonard Clark (Tom Sizemore, Daniel Baldwin, Kevin Gage and Tom Hollander) hounding him 24/7, taking pictures of Abby and Zach and selling the pix to the tabloid rag that bears this film’s title: Paparazzi.
Bo is willing to put himself in front of the shutterbugs’ lenses, but he can’t abide the intrusion into his family. So when Rex crawls out from the shadows to snap a few pix of Zach at a youth soccer game, Bo asks Rex to stop, and when he doesn’t, Bo punches him in front of a van full of Rex’s cronies, who capture the exchange on film. Bo’s unwillingness to allow his family to be dragged into the celebrity game — “You’re somebody now. Get used to it,” Rex snarls at him between camera flashes — fuels his rage. In the film’s logic, it also makes it okay for Bo to pound the hell out of fellow human beings. What could have been an isolated incident escalates when Rex sees Bo on TV discussing the dust-up and yells at the screen, “I’m gonna destroy your life and eat your soul, and I can’t wait to do it.”
Bo is always front cover fodder for Paparazzi, and the paparazzi’s desire to learn his comings and goings never wanes — but it’s never clear why. As played by Hauser, Bo is any old blandly handsome direct-to-video B-movie action star. Hollywood hair stylist/first-time director Paul Abascal and screenwriter Forrest Smith could have parlayed the tabloid-reading public’s thirst into clever satire, but they play it straight. In fact, Abascal’s notion of comedy, as he shares on the DVD’s commentary track, is adding scenes where Bo repeatedly punches Rex in the face. Hardee-har-har.
Bo snaps when the paparazzi chase the Laramies in their SUV, flashbulbs popping, causing a gruesome collision between Bo’s family and a random motorist. Rather than help the injured family — the crash lands Zach in a coma — the photogs shoot a few pix of the wrecked car and its passengers then scurry off. (As Abascal notes, “These paparazzi are very sleazy guys.” Kudos to makeup department head Scott Eddo for showing some restraint and not asking the paparazzi guys to grow Snidely Whiplash moustaches.)
For the remainder of the movie, Bo stalks the paparazzi with an obsessiveness that trumps their stalking of him — but it’s okay, because he’s defending his family. The film doesn’t explore the thin psychological line separating the two camps, at least not in any way comparable to, say, Straw Dogs. Bo gets down in the muck with the bad guys, and the audience is supposed to root for him. Period.
He finds time between anger management classes and hours on the set of Adrenaline Force 2 to pick the paparazzi off, one by one. He nudges one off a cliff (in a scene Abascal introduces by saying, “This is a funny moment here”) and plants a gun on another, causing police officers to shoot him, “suicide-by-cop”-style, when he inadvertently brandishes it at a traffic stop. It sickens me to say there’s a Rube Goldbergian kickiness to these murders, but they’re downright clever when compared to the baseball bat-beating Bo administers to Wendell Stokes. The assault takes place off-screen; Abascal admits that test-screening audiences found an onscreen beating made Bo less sympathetic, as if not actually seeing Bo club a man to death makes it okay.
Meanwhile, Detective Burton (Dennis Farina), originally assigned to investigate the Laramies’ car crash, can’t help but notice that the paparazzi involved in the accident keep turning up in the morgue. Burton’s onto Bo, piecing together clues, but he lets the actor seek revenge. Bo completes his revenge by beating the hell out of Rex when the latter comes to kill him, because (all together now) the guy’s defending his family. And Rex gets his ironic comeuppance when police lead him out of the Laramie home in handcuffs and a swarm of paparazzi descend upon him, inundating him with questions and flashbulb pops. Meanwhile, in what may be one of cinema’s smallest character arcs (even for an action film), Bo attends the premiere of Adrenaline Force 2 and, having been purged of his paparazzi-fueled rage, trades good-natured barbs with a smart-aleck photographer.
At its core, Paparazzi shows an alarming lack of nuance. Bo’s behavior is never questioned (three people are dead by his hand, fer chrissakes!) and the sleazy cameramen are exhibit one-dimension: evil. Paparazzi could have tackled any number of interesting questions: Aren’t there paparazzi with wives and kids to house, clothe and feed? What is the public’s role in consuming celebrity culture? Why is Bo apparently “famous for being famous”? If being a family man is so important to Bo, why doesn’t he ditch the movie career and take Abby and Zach back to Montana? But Abascal and Smith blink, as if blinded by flashbulbs, and treat the audience to more footage of Tom Sizemore getting punched in the face.