There will come a time not too long from now when entire $80-million studio films will be made with Handicams.
I mean, why mess around any more, you ersatz-avant-garde auteurs? In the last decade, the public has repeatedly been told that hand-held video images represent real life in unfiltered form. They’re also a symbolic representation of our nation’s obsession with entertainment as a language. And since they’re all shaky and jumpy and stuff, they have a veneer of authenticity you just can’t get with standard Panaflexes. Like trashy clothes boutiques and gourmet junk food, video images are so bad, they must be good. Why not just fire up the Sony, throw a script out there and put a big ol’ mess of raw truth on the screen?
Writer-director John Herzfeld is way ahead of me. That’s part of his thesis in 15 Minutes, a well-meaning but profoundly muddled allegory about media, celebrity, violence and xenophobia. Our antiheroes are Emil and Oleg, two Eastern European (Emil’s Czech, Oleg’s Russian, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest) tough guys who come to America to collect their share of a robbery for which they were incarcerated back home. An hour off the plane, movie-obsessed Oleg has stolen a video camera and begins taping everything they do—even when Emil kills two people.
Later, sitting in a dirty hotel room watching Roseanne’s old talk show, Emil hatches a crackpot theory about American life and also figures out how to exploit it for maximum movie entertainment value. As we’re told amidst Oleg’s jumpy cinematography, in America, “no one is responsible for anything they do!” Emil plans to use that insight to become rich and famous.
On the other side of the thin blue line are Robert De Niro as a celebrity homicide detective who drinks too much, and writer-director-of-really-bad-films Edward Burns, who plays a fireman who’s somehow allowed to become a critical part of a homicide investigation. Herzfeld can’t think of one plausible reason for these two characters to be together, yet he has them working side-by-side as they chase Emil and Oleg through the streets of Manhattan.
The most interesting concept Herzfeld stumbles upon is the idea of two European characters whose perceptions of America have been molded by the embarrassingly large amount of U.S. entertainment available in their homelands. Where Americans can watch Jerry Springer or the latest heavy-breathing action thriller with a healthy dose of cynicism and perspective, Emil and Oleg have taken American media to be an accurate representation of America. Their views are preposterous, but it’s not impossible to see how they might have evolved.
And that’s the biggest problem with 15 Minutes. The film—particularly in its final half, which includes one decent plot twist but more wild swerves than a drunken teenager driving an 18-wheeler—panders to every stereotype Herzfeld ridicules. The film’s overall concept of vigilante justice, its cardboard characters, its sound-byte dialogue—all of it fits right in with the worst of the entertainment that appears to have warped Emil and Oleg.
The points Herzfeld seeks to make are either terribly dated or directly contradicted by his own film. We’ve been told for 40 years that television has a dark side, and it’s been said by much more interesting and passionate filmmakers. You can’t really teach a cogent lesson about the evils of violence and sensationalism while you’re stabbing some of your characters with steak knives, burning several more and heroically shooting the rest with way more bullets than necessary. Oddly, it reminded me of a mid-1990s bomb called Meteor Man, in which Robert Townsend’s superhero character preached against violence until the final scenes, when he got out a gun and shot a bunch of people. Filmmakers like Herzfeld stick to their principles only as long as it suits them.
15 Minutes attempts to make a delicate, sticky point, and Herzfeld is woefully inadequate for the challenge. Andy Warhol’s sage observation that provides the title has been bent and twisted before, but rarely as completely pretzeled as it is here.
15 Minutes (R) HH Directed by John Herzfeld. Starring Edward Burns, Robert De Niro and Kelsey Grammer