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SLC PUNK!

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Matthew Lillard, Michael Goorjian, Annabeth Gish, Devon Sawa
Director:  James Merendino
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  October 19, 1999

Film ****

A story about two punk rockers living in Salt Lake City, the most conservative town in the United States?  That definitely merits an A+ for a premise.  I almost expected the film to start off with the voice of the late Allen Funt saying, “We thought it would be funny if…”

But SLC Punk is more than a great premise.  It’s ferociously fast and funny filmmaking, with a kinetic visual style, a terrific cast, and an energy level few films attain, much less sustain.  I haven’t laughed this hard since I saw Clerks back in 1994.  This movie is every bit as funny…and has a lot more to say in the margins.

He probably won’t get an Oscar nomination, but trust me…Matthew Lillard turns in one of the finest performances of the year as Stevo, the protagonist/narrator/tour guide of the film.  Much of the film’s energy depends on his work, and he attacks the material with unbridled passion, humor, and realism…and even a little warmth and sweetness.  Stevo has surprisingly managed to graduate from college, but has decided that he won’t submit to “the system”, so he and his best friend, Heroin Bob (Goorjian) live the punk rockers’ life of chaos and anarchy, in a never ending search for easy sex, cold beer and good drugs on the streets of the Mormons’ home city.  (I should point out a juicy bit of irony…despite his name, Heroin Bob doesn’t take drugs, and actually has a phobia about needles).

The punk philosophy is constantly laid down and explained by Stevo, who frequently talks right to the camera, or steps outside of his own scenes to offer exposition.  These are some of the funniest moments captured on film this year.  He even introduces the audience to all his friends, not all of whom are punks, but each has a humorous background story or two that we get to see in flashback form.  That’s part of what’s so great about this film…it skips from present to past and back again, sometimes going all the way back to childhood, with absolutely no sense of respect for linear time.  It’s never hard to follow, but it feels like a blatant rebellion against conventional movie making.  Which, of course, given the subject matter, is perfect.

But the movie isn’t really a celebration of anarchy.  I look at Stevo like a punk version of Holden Caulfield.  His blue hair and chains are not as much about rebellion as he believes, but about fear…the fear all young people have about fitting in.  He sees his father, a one time frequenter of Woodstock with long hair and a hippie protestor against the war.  Now, he’s a successful lawyer, living in a conservative town.  “I didn’t sell out, I bought in,” he protests to his son.  And Stevo looks at his father as though he simply lost something along the way.

We all rebel in our own way at that age, but eventually, we have to grow up enough to realize that there are only two ways of going about life…either somehow make some kind of peace with the system you distrust and fear, or wither away into nothingness.  Anarchy is merely a philosophy, Stevo eventually begins to learn.  It’s not much of a way of life.  And maybe, just maybe the best way to affect change is from within the system instead of outside of it.  That’s the heart of the movie in a nutshell.

But in spite of a serious message that’s handled truthfully and with respect, the best part about the movie is the comedy.  There are so many gems in the film that it would take pages to list them all, most of them involving Stevo’s narration and explanations of how things work in the world as he perceives them.  His observations are sharp, though sometimes amusingly misguided.  He looks upon falling in love as a punishment, for one.  His explanation of why we fight, complete with visuals.  And his belief that Salt Lake City is the perfect place for him to be, despite his hatred for it.  You don’t go to New York or other places where the movement is in full swing to rebel, he pontificates.  You go where the people are conservative and tightly wound, where you stick out like a sore thumb.  In other words, if you want to rebel, be in a place where you have something to rebel against.

Another favorite of mine involves one of his friends, played by Devon Sawa, a one time fellow punk who’s become a beggar on the street.  He laments a sad tale about how he can’t get a job, but in a flashback sequence, we see him show up for his interview wearing a shirt with an expletive on the front, and cursing out the manager with full punk attitude.  It was hysterical, because at the heart of it, this kid honestly had no idea why he couldn’t find work.

By the time it was all over, I fully realized I had just seen a remarkable and adventurous film, one that wasn’t afraid to take risks, and as such, easily ranks amongst the year’s best.  This is simply funny, fast, fresh entertainment.  And despite the Salt Lake City setting, there’s not one polygamy joke in the entire film.  Now THAT’S refreshing.

Video ***1/2

Despite being a lower budgeted film, this disc looks and sounds terrific.  Often, the most colorful images on screen are the characters, and they are often shown against more bland and drab backgrounds…obviously for visual symbolism…but the contrasts work nicely, and all images are sharp and clear, with good coloring.  Even darker scenes, like the punk clubs, are detailed and crisp. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, too, particularly given the number of speaker shaking punk anthems that help drive the story.  There's not much use of the surrounds, but the subwoofer stays plenty busy delivering the bottom end to the rock music!

Features ***

The disc contains a good commentary with the director and two stars, some trailers, an on screen comic book of SLC Punk, and an isolated music score audio track.

Summary:

SLC Punk is razor sharp, smart, and completely hilarious.  It’s an adventurous, innovative film that mixes style and substance seamlessly to create a rapid fire, energetic and totally enthralling motion picture experience.  It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and for those who are in the mood for a full frontal comedic assault, makes for a terrific and adventurous night’s entertainment.