Sundance Film Fest 2010: Twelve by Joel Schumacher

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By Patrick McGavin

Manic, mannered and absurd, "Twelve" continues the rapid decline of the once highly capable studio director Joel Schumacher. His big commercial projects ("The Los Boys," "The Client," "A Time to Kill") were not always subtle, but they at least had a visual flair, strong production values and some classical construction.

Schumacher made his early reputation as a designer of some key films of Woody Allen and more important, a screenwriter of humanist impulses on some excellent 1970s films like "Sparkle" and "Car Wash."  Now, he seems stuck doing his own hustle, and the results are particularly dispiriting.

Schumacher's recent genre films ("Tigerland," "Phone Booth") were possessed with a certain speed and alertness. "Twelve" plays like a ridiculous shotgun arrangement of Bret Easton Ellis, "Clueless," and Whit Stillman. Even worse, it lacks the guts to acknowledge its own cynicism and vanity; instead, it's the worst kind of cautionary tale, theoretically about the staggering amorality about gilded youth, but it is just pretentious and maddening.

Jordan Melamed has adapted the novel by Nick McConnell, written when the author was just 17-years-old. Kiefer Sutherland is the movie's narrator, and his Olympian pronouncements, as though imported from a Henry James novel, set a horrible tone and flagrantly unctuous style the movie never recovers from. The movie's set on the Upper East Side, and the story unfolds over a couple of days when the mostly prep school educated teenagers have returned home.

The long eight-year gestation from the novel to film adaptation has rendered the movie rather obsolete. The plot feels second hand, poached from "The Wackness." The movie's "hero" (Chace Crawford), is a scruffy, good looking kid on a downward spiral. Still reeling from the death, from complications of breast cancer, of his mother a year earlier, he has constructed an elaborate counter identity known as "White Mike," a dealer of marijuana as a survival mechanism to stem the economic slide endured by his father.

He has maintained the elaborate cover of a young entrepreneur on the make, working for his father's restaurant, from his only legitimate friend, Molly (Emma Roberts, about the movie's only recognizably human character).

His "work," is the means for Schumacher to orbit around a group of four or five interconnected stories about high school kids who make up White Mike's extensive clientele. Young, beautiful, emotionally disconnected, these kids are all variations on the same figure of thrill seekers who take advantage of their unlimited access to cash and their parents' absence or own emotional dissolution to move freely from one brownstone to another.

The advent of a new designer drug, called "Twelve," containing the characteristics of both cocaine and Ecstasy, is the new rage. Schumacher is dangling several storylines, all of them badly. A desperate act of attempted robbery of a notorious Harlem kingmaker (Curtis Jackson) results in two deaths, one of them White Mike's cousin, the other an innocent witness.

These teenagers, insulated by their money and social privilege, operate in another bauble of their own making. Their concerns of sexual conquest, material consumption, and maintaining elite status are their dominant mode of address.  Neither Schumacher nor Melamed are able to individuate any of the characters, providing any shading, distinctive or complicated emotional or personal ranges to the characters. They are stick figures and we stand constantly outside them, like the two brothers, one (Rory Culkin) passive and virginal, the other (Billy Magnussen) unhinged and quite possibly mad.

Through it all we are staggered by their lack of introspection. The closest the movie comes is when the most popular girl (Esti Ginsberg), in conversation with a potential new boyfriend, says that if she ever met herself, she'd be appalled by what she found.

Schumacher does not alleviate the problems of story or a surfeit of uninteresting characters by his tricked out and vacuous visual design that overemphasizes dazzling surfaces. Even his characters are treated as objects on display. The movie is shot like an aggressive or mannered perfume ad. The visual style just chokes whatever life or interesting details are available.

The story culminates with a wild bacchanalia celebrating the most popular girl's 18th birthday. The ending is preposterous on every level. Worst of all, it just enables Schumacher to rain down judgment that is not only punitive and reactionary, it turns into the final act of character crucifixion.

It is not surprising Crawford is a star on "Gossip Girl," because this movie is like that show on crack. It is meant to be shocking or rude or profane. But it feels desperate and wholly unexamined. Pretty much every character in "Twelve," looks as though they have just come off a runway ad. But no make no mistake, this is an ugly work alternately nasty and crude.