Last week I wrote about Peter Berg's successful but artistically mishandled super hero movie Hancock. Along the way I mentioned Very Bad Things, Berg's big screen directorial debut and also the first major motion picture he wrote. Very Bad Things is, itself, a woefully miscalculated picture, though in an entirely different and, in its own perverse style, more artistically compelling way. Released in 1998, Very Bad Things came at the height of America's unprecedented economic and cultural power, a time of incredible optimism and equally intense indulgence. With the exception of Saving Private Ryan and The Big Lebowski, 1998 was a pretty abysmal year at the movies, or at least not a very artistically ambitious one. There was a lot of popcorn fare (including no fewer than two movies about giant asteroids colliding with Earth), a remake of Godzilla and the toilet humor opus that is There's Something About Mary. '98 was an era of excess, so taking Very Bad Things in the context of its time makes it an especially effective satire instead of just the relentlessly cruel comedy it was originally branded.
Very Bad Things is, put simply, a movie about a group of otherwise decent men slipping into a horrifying, ultra-violent nightmare in an attempt to escape responsibility for one deeply unfortunate accident. Jon Favreau plays Kyle, a man on the verge of marrying the high-strung woman of his dreams (played by Cameron Diaz). He and his friends take a debauched trip to Las Vegas for his bachelor party, gambling, drinking and snorting cocaine like... well, like it's 1998. When the stripper/prostitute inevitably shows up at their suite, one of the guys, Michael, accidentally kills her during an over-enthusiastic romp in the bathroom.
Now, Very Bad Things ended up $100,000 short of breaking even, but it has attained a certain amount of cult status since. The bathroom scene is really the point when first-time viewers either start to feel the sickness that won't subside until days after seeing the movie or fall in love with the sheer intensity of its darkness. The stripper's death is comically macabre. The back of her skull is impaled on a wall fixture, leaving her body pinned upright in a way that forces the audience to confront sex, death and opulence in one, unforgettable image.
From that point on, Very Bad Things never relents. A corpse is desecrated, a man kills his brother by hitting him with a mini-van, the ultimate bridezilla beats the best man's head in just moments before her wedding. There is no catharsis in the movie, not for one second. It's a film that suggests a world that hasn't just strayed from its moral center, it has absolutely lost it.
Especially the first time through, Very Bad Things is a harrowing experience, especially considering how it was marketed. The original promo spots indicated a mildly dark comedy about a group of friends mugging their way through a madcap misadventure. It's a wonder the actual movie made it to theaters at all. Perhaps that's part of the appeal. The fact that such an uncomfortably brutal film showed at the same time as Rush Hour and The Prince of Egypt seems like half the joke.
The other half is the cultural satire, whether it was intentional or not. Christian Slater's character, Boyd, is the poster child for 90's style motivational speaking. He's a corporate devil who uses the language of self-actualization pap in the vein of Tony Robbins to justify doing things that no decent human being would even consider. Guys like Boyd were very briefly the heroes of American society. They sold Enron stock and got fat on sub-prime mortgage lending. Very Bad Things is that Up-With-Me amorality brought to its logical conclusion. That in mind, the film was still a tasteless miscalculation in its time, even if there's a layer of incisive satire afforded to it by a decade of social developments I doubt Peter Berg foresaw when he wrote the script.