Splendor: Gregg Araki’s Screwball Comedy

After devoting most of the 1990s to various explorations of teen angst, Gregg Araki makes a sight change of pace with Splendor, an erotically surrealist comedy, centering on a menage a trois, fetchingly played by Kathleen Robertson, Johnathon Schaech, and best of all, Matt Keeslar, who steals every scene he’s in.

A reworking of classic screwball comedies, with strong influences by Howard Hawks and George Cukor, Splendor is a decidedly late 1990s tale in its stylistic, if not, thematic treatment, one likely to please the twentysomething and MTV crowd. A small distributor may be intrigued by this upbeat, visually stunning but inconsequential picture which holds limited commercial appeal in today’s market.

Having lost his core gay audience with the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere), all of which failed commercially, has forced Araki to reexamine his creative faculties and come up with a different kind of film. Though less violent and macabre than all of his previous movies, Splendor is not exactly a fresh movie–or a radical point of departure. Heavily borrowing from Noel Coward’s Design for Living, Hawks’ His Girl Friday, and most of all, Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, new romantic comedy also recalls Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, structuring the tale around a beautiful, sexually vibrant and promiscuous blonde named Veronica (Robertson) and her various suitors.

Addressing the camera directly, in the manner of Woody Allen’s 1970s comedies, the self-absorbed Veronica narrates her amorous escapades and inability to commit. It is a subversive joke, as in most Hollywood movies–and American literature–it’s the male who’s reluctant to commit. In the first–and best–reel, Veronica meets two diametrically opposed lovers: Abel (Schaech), a witty, charming rock critic, and Zed (Keeslar), an instinctive, sexually insatiable punk-rock band drummer. Representing two contrasting forces in Veronica’s life, Abel provides mental stimulation, while Zed offers animal physicality.

When Abel and Zed fall head-over-heels over Veronica–and claims she’s equally in love with both–the “logical” solution is to defy society’s bourgeois rules, move in together, and establish an unconventional household. After several months, when both Abel and Zed prove immature in their slacker/bohemian lifestyle, Veronica, an aspiring actress, is forced to find gainful, often humiliating jobs. All along she confides in her best friend, art student Mike (rigidly acted by Kelly Macdonald) in scenes that are more irritating than entertaining.

Complications abound, when Veronica meets in an audition Ernest (Eric Mabius), a rich, successful director, who also becomes smitten with her. It doesn’t help that she’s pregnant and is not exactly sure who’s the father, which throws the quartet into a quandary. The finale, in which Abel and Zed rescue Veronica from her wedding to Ernest, brings to mind numerous scenes from vintage Hollywood movies, from It Happened One Night to The Graduate. Unfortunately, Araki can’t find a witty or original way to end his tale and last act is disappointingly silly.

Here and there, there are touches of the subversive, anti-establishment Araki. For example, taking the nebbish character that Ralph Bellamy played to perfection in His Girl Friday (and other comedies), helmer casts a bright, handsome thesp (Mabius) in the role, thus increasing the tension between Ernest and his two nemeses. In classic Hollywood, the audience always knew that Katharine Hepburn (Philadelphia Story) didn’t really fit in with her fiancee, that Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) should never marry the man chosen by her wealthy father. In Splendor, however, the heroine could have gone with any of her three beaux, an indication of the times’ loose morality as well as narrative weaknesses.

What’s disappointing about Splendor is that Araki shows less courage than Noel Coward did 70 years ago (first in his play and then in his script for Design for Living) in delineating the kind of relationship that prevails between Abel and Zed when Veronica walks out on them–and they continue to share a household together. Even so, the charisma of the triangle, particularly Robertson and Keeslar (for some reason, the usually handsomer Schaech is poorly lighted and doesn’t look good) carry this fluffy comedy over its extremely thin veneer.

Staged in the freewheeling, associative, fractured style of Spike Lee and Woody Allen, Splendor features characters that are not nearly as riveting or resonant as those that populated Depression era screwball comedies. Infatuated with three different men, in Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn’s snobbishly arrogant Tracy Lord learned a lesson or two in humility and humanity, lessons utterly missing from Splendor’s frivolous nature.

Collaborating again with the gifted Doom Generation’s lenser, Jim Fealy, and Nowhere’s production designer, Patti Podesta, Araki has made a sensual picture that entices while it lasts, but then evaporates as an air bubble as soon as it is over.