Slackers (2002)


Some movies just don’t need to be made. And some movies work extra hard to educe comments just like that one, making the extra effort to gross you out, to annoy, alarm, or titillate you. Dewey Nicks’ feature debut, Slackers is one of those hardworking movies. Consider the title’s clunk-on-the-head that suggests the overtime someone put in to come up with an irritatingly unimaginative retread concept.

Written by David H. Steinberg, Slackers begins with a brief rundown of its three protagonists’ profound lack of goals and aspirations. Dave (Devon Sawa), Jeff (Michael C. Maronna), and Sam (Jason Segel) have reached senior year at whatever college they’re attending, without really passing a course. They enroll in large lecture courses, never show up for class, then finagle ingenious cheats for the final exams. They think they are very clever.

The exemplary version of this strategy opens the film. It’s 48 days before graduation, Dave narrates, and they’re into their homestretch. The mission: to steal official blue books off a delivery truck, in order to fill one with answers to stolen questions. The scheme involves videotaping a girl’s cheerleading or perhaps track squad as they go jogging (granting various close-up jiggle shots that, oddly, seem more geared for your delectation than as a means to develop characters Dave, Jeff or Sam: go figure), and some cockamamie antics on a bike. All this effort seems extreme. Heck, maybe it would be easier just to go to class once in a while.

The “crucial” part of this plot involves Dave’s appearance at a final for a class he didn’t take, but whose questions he needs to steal, in order for Jeff-or-Sam (doesn’t really matter which one) to have answers ready for the same exam the next day. The point is, he meets a girl who is actually taking the exam, the fabulous Angela (played by the fabulous James King), and while he’s flirting with her, he’s spotted by another exam-taker, the Lord of Losers who calls himself Cool Ethan (Jason Schwartzman). And so… Cool Ethan threatens to bust the cheaters unless they get him hooked up with Angela.

Sawa and King turn out to be the romantic subplot, of course, they are very pretty. But the reason for the inclusion of a romantic subplot remains a mystery — if you’re going for the yuckiest of bodily function humor, that would seem to be more than enough. Both Sawa and King are Hollywood up-and-comers who have decent, if brief, resumes. She was very pretty as Kate Beckinsale’s fellow nurse in Pearl Harbor, and because her role was so slim, she didn’t have to spend too much time making excuses for that film’s overbearing self-love. Sawa tends to rest on his familiar insouciant-boy affect, but you know, his slasher flicks Final Destination and Idle Hands suddenly look like masterpieces compared to Slackers. Maybe he’s looking to be the next Ashton Kutcher, because there aren’t enough of them already.

Still, the more curious career choice here is Schwartzman’s. Not long ago he was the flavor of the Geek Chic month (or year), for his notable work in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. His Ethan is more desperate and desperate, and certainly less charming than Max J. Fisher, whose admittedly troubling obsession with his teacher was evoked in emotional details and silliness rather than the bludgeoning slapstick in Slackers. Ethan evinces a meanness that should actually be comprehensible: he’s obviously been abused by classmates throughout his life, so that his desire to wield his sudden sense of power over these numb-nuts makes sense. But it’s hard to cozy up to a character as flat-out repulsive as Cool Ethan. Perhaps this is the “motivation,” to play a character so awful that viewers will be convulsing with spasms of horror-struck laughter, you know, to stretch.

Ethan’s brutality and cunning are indeed remarkable. And so what if they’re unoriginal? It’s fairly clear that the aim of farting-college-boy comedy isn’t to break new, uh, ground, as much as it is to run over — and over and over — the same turf, so viewers know exactly when to laugh and go “Yeeech!” and poke their buddies in their arms. Still, the redundancy eventually does undo what is most keen in this formula, and that is to allow you to see stereotypes in ways that might not have occurred to you before. If all you’re seeing is a slightly more overheated version of what’s already available on That ’70s Show, or that has been battered beyond recognition in Dude, Where’s My Car? and American Pie 2, well, you might as well find another genre to hit up for spare ideas.

Recently, like, since he’s been asked to pitch Slackers, about which there is clearly very little to say, Schwartzman has been talking to anyone who will listen about going on the road with his band, Phantom Planet. He’s the drummer. It sounds like a decent gig, according to a “band journal” he wrote for Details: he meets chicks, sleeps while sitting up in the van, wakes up stiff, and goes on to hit the skins another day. You know, awesome. And likely, a gig like Slackers helps pay for gas.