Bang & Whimper: Gregg Araki’s ‘Kaboom’

From the Vault: Here is my review of Kaboom, originally posted on Fabulous Apple.

Sex! Blood! Sex! Drugs! Sex! Witch! Sex! Vomit! Sex! Cult! Sex! Apocalypse! KABOOM! End credits.

Or so goes the plot of Gregg Araki’s latest film, Kaboom — only with less subtlety. Araki is the filmmaker behind 2005’s hauntingly beautiful, moody Mysterious Skin, which gave the world its first taste of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a seriously talented performer, and the stoner comedy Smiley Face, a silly trifle worth watching to see the inimitable Anna Faris in full-out gonzo crazy mode as she rolls from her car to the floor of her garage because she thinks Satan is after her. Of course, Araki also has a cult following thanks to early films like Nowhere and The Doom Generation, which were also about disaffected, strung-out, promiscuous youths, many of them gay/lesbian/bi/whatever. Ostensibly, Kaboom is a throwback to those films, dubbed the “teen apocalypse trilogy” — is it now a quadrology? If you ever watched Dr. Strangelove and thought it could use more gay sex and a witch-melting scene, then Kaboom is the movie for you.

The plot concerns Smith, played by Thomas Dekker, who has been having strange, ominous dreams involving a strung-out red-head, a door with the number “19” on it, and a trash dumpster. Things go from bad to worse when he eats a laced treat and hallucinates being attacked by men in animal masks (or is it real)? Smith tells lesbian pal Stella (Hayley Bennet) all about it, but for the meantime is more concerned with uncovering the sexuality of his painfully stupid surfer roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka, in a role that will probably be even funnier after the release of his namesake’s big budget superhero movie). Smith, you see, is ambisexual (aka a “slut,” says Stella); he is interested in just about anything that comes his way, from the married stranger he encounters on a nude beach to the shy college boy who sends him a romantic confession video via email, along with the Brit vixen (cheekily named London, also above) who phones him whenever she needs an orgasm. She’s played by the winning and watchable Juno Temple, a cut above the rest of the cast (perhaps because she’s the most intriguing character).

Perverts rejoice: Araki does not skimp on the sex. Here we have numerous, wholly gratuitous scenes of girl-on-girl, guy-on-guy, guy-on-girl, a-guy-and-a-girl-on-a-guy, and so on. None of it has much to do with anything, but it’s all in good fun — Smith, Stella, and the gang are uber-blase about sex, drugs, creepy notes, witchcraft (pretty much everything), like characters from a Bret Easton Ellis novel who have accidentally wandered into one by Stephen King.

For awhile, the mysterious elements are just alluring enough to hold us in suspense, while the pansexual romping provides plenty of levity. It’s never boring. But the deeper Araki delves into the half-baked “mythology” of this world, in chunky bits of exposition about a lot of things we don’t even come close to witnessing, the more Kaboom derails into parody. (Parody of what? You’ve got me. Maybe his own earlier movies?)

One could reach a bit and say that Araki is commenting on the anything-goes nature of sexual experimentation in college. And that the apocalyptic elements are in place as a sly metaphor for how our early encounters with love, drugs, and sex often feel like world-changing (even world-ending) events. In its best moments, Kaboom‘s tone straddles the horror-comedy line like Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” witty dialogue intact. But all that flies out the window as the film gracelessly careens into its disastrous final act, disposing of even the slightest hint of plausibility.

Like Richard Kelly’s similar (but superior) confounding armageddon dramedy Southland Tales, Kaboom finds it necessary to cram a lot of high-stakes backstory into dialogue without showing us any of it, so we’re forced to just take Araki at his word that any of this is true or important. But unlike the bombastic Southland Tales, which had intermittent moments of sly social-commentary and cinematic genius (witness Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” for no reason at all, or Sarah Michelle Gellar as porn-star-cum-pop-tart Krysta Now singing “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime”) — not to mention something of a budget — ultimately, Kaboom doesn’t take itself seriously, and cheats the audience with a madcap, slapdash excuse for an ending. Suddenly none of the character development matters. Looking back on certain scenes after knowing what’s “really” going on, a lot of it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s clear that Araki just didn’t really know how to end this movie and didn’t really care to; those final few minutes smack of a sloppy first draft. It’s a wonder the actors were able to play these roles with even a shred of credibility (though some seem to have given up by the end, too).

Not helping matters is the film’s ultra-low budget look — initially forgivable, but increasingly noticeable as the story increases in scope and decreases in ingenuity. It’s one thing to use tight shots and lack coverage in depicting college kids cracking wise about their sex lives, and another thing entirely when delivering heavy exposition about a global conspiracy to bring about doomsday. (Note to budding filmmakers: if you have limited time and money, it is probably not wise to make a movie that demands Michael Bay-scale special effects.) A tighter, smaller-scale story exploring the same ideas with more ambiguity would have been a lot more satisfying.

In the end, Kaboom feels rushed and homemade, like Araki and a few friends got together to goof off with a camera for a few days; or maybe it was just an excuse to get a lot of pretty actors naked. That’s all well and good, but why ask audiences to pay to see your movie if even you can’t take it seriously? Such mistakes might be expected from a novice filmmaker, but from Araki it’s just disappointing. Was Mysterious Skin a fluke? That film showed such potential; in every way, Kaboom feels like a colossal step backward.

Still, there’s enough to admire in Kaboom to make it worth checking out as a novelty (no need to see it in a theater, though). Early scenes manage to build a genuine sense of apocalyptic dread; Dekker and Temple are particularly engaging, while the rest of the cast is mostly capable, too; the sexy/snarky banter is fun; and the rather original tone keeps things interesting by moving back and forth between Donnie Darko-style portentous gloom and light-hearted sex comedy. (Unusual, sure, but it works more often than it doesn’t.)

One suspects (and hopes) that Kaboom was more of an experimental exercise than a full-fledged attempt at a serious movie. Certainly, the abrupt ending is only one step removed from Araki actually appearing on-screen to shrug and say, “Sorry, guys, we ran out of money.” But by now, shouldn’t he know better? Had Araki not concluded Kaboom in such an over-explained clusterfuck of half-baked ideas, audiences might have felt the need to think about the meaning of it all; instead, it feels like the writer-director is the one who needs to do a little more pondering.

This is how the world ends, according to Gregg Araki: not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a ham-handed explosion of exposition. Ker-splat! might’ve been a more appropriate title.

The first hour of Kaboom: B+

The last fifteen minutes: D-

Kaboom: Starts with a bang, ends with a whimper. A nice apocalyptic pick-me-up after Melancholia, perhaps.

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