Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Retro Review: Gossip (2000)

Gossip (2000) is fun to watch for the same reason it’s fun to watch Havoc (2005) and the like – it’s a small, well-intentioned but not-so-great thriller full of hungry young actors brought to the screen by ambitious young filmmakers looking to break big with a film capitalizing on their youth. It shows promise at times, and entertains in a small screen, Saturday afternoon sort of way. But it’s most interesting when viewed as a launching pad for its talent, and as such it mostly succeeded.

A junior varsity twist flick emulating its idols in the big leagues, Gossip is a movie about the power and danger of words, and the ambiguity with which we so recklessly toss them about. It stars James Marsden as Derrick Webb, a naughty little rich boy looking for kicks. His roommate Cathy (Lena Headey) suggests starting a rumor for a school project, then tracking the patterns on which it travels. Sort of like “Understanding the Game of Telephone 101”. Derrick sees this as an excellent opportunity to stir up some trouble, and he targets Kate Hudson’s spoiled and prissy Naomi for the experiment. The rumor – that Naomi’s beau Beau (Joshua Jackson) got her drunk and date raped her when she passed out.

Malicious? Sure. But what’s the harm, right? They’re only words...

Gossip believes that words hurt, a lot. That they can lead to heartbreak, violence and maybe even death. It believes we need to take responsibility for our words, and it believes it’s somehow groundbreaking in this lesson…as if Shakespeare didn’t tackle the same material in MacBeth.

Shakespeare it ain’t. Gossip is slapdash filmmaking, shot with enthusiasm for the cool-craving high school/college crowds. It feels like a 90s flick, like grunge on the verge of a new millennium. And it’s hard to believe it was ever that cool. Gregory Poirier’s script offers a few neat twists, but the stakes never feel as serious as the filmmakers want them to…and as a film about consequences, this is where Gossip fails most.

Gossip was a Box Office bomb, debuting with a decent $2.3 million domestically before pulling in $12.5 worldwide (aka exactly half of its production budget). But the flick has enjoyed modest success on cable and DVD, hitched to the coattails of a cast that, had they been as relevant at the time, should have drawn in larger crowds.

Hudson is the biggest name, and only a few months shy of breaking big as Penny Lane in Almost Famous (2000). But she’s relegated to the outer circle in Gossip, her role defined by her ability to be pretty and bitter at the same time.

Marsden is surprisingly good, as if pretending he’s Tom Cruise in a better movie. He’d scored a mediocre hit opposite Katie Holmes in Disturbing Behavior (1998), a flick I fondly remember for introducing me to Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” (if you haven’t listened to Harvey Danger lately, check them out – they were a truly undervalued post-grunge band). Like Hudson, Marsden would make bigger waves with X-Men (2000) later that summer…but Gossip is actually one of his strongest performances.

Gossip also features Norman Reedus at the height of his limited prime, and Jackson at his marketable Dawson’s peak. And it was the first foray onto the big screen for director Davis Guggenheim, a man who at the time was better known as Elizabeth Shue’s husband (and perhaps still is now, if known at all). But its B.O. failure cut him off at the knees and largely relegated him to TV work, a fate he’s capitalized on, directing episodes of high-caliber TV like 24, Alias, The Shield and Deadwood.

His work here suggests David Fincher for the MTV crowd, and his movie is every bit as lukewarm and watered down as that sounds. There’s lots of rain and lots of dark shadows, coupled with spiraling staircase shots and creepy campus structures.*  But it’s all show – Gossip is never as dark or edgy as it should have been.

* Fun fact – the campus used in Gossip is the same one used in The Skulls (2000) and Urban Legend (1998), completing a Joshua Jackson trilogy of sorts. How’s that for a random movie marathon?

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