Your 15 minutes are up
The new De Niro film, 15 minutes, falls victim to the same hype it attempts to address
Just in time for the new Republican dawn comes this throwback, a return to the days of the proudly conservative Dirty Harry series and its ilk, of “one good man” resorting to vigilantism in order to find justice within a corrupt (read: leftist) system. In the world of these movies, everything is tainted and the answer is obvious—the leftist-media, the criminal-coddling liberal courts and of course immigrants are all to blame for the degradation of the American spirit.
Our good man here is New York City Fire Marshall Jody Warsaw (Ed Burns), a solitary, loose-cannon sort called to a five-alarm blaze in a tenement, where he finds not only the charred bodies of a couple in a very, uh, compromising position, but also that his authority has been usurped by media glory hound Detective Eddie Fleming (Robert De Niro), one of those New York detectives that People magazine likes to splash across its covers periodically. Right.
After mucking about in the charred ruins, both put aside their territorial pissings and agree that it would be vaguely suspicious that lovers could be so consumed by passion that they’d fail to notice a raging inferno roaring about them. Fleming likes Warsaw’s spunky spirit and—after the necessary “old hand/punk kid” repartee—takes him under his wing as they set out to sniff for clues.
What the pair are about to find out is that they’ve been dealt a couple of wild cards from an Eastern Bloc deck, one very bad Czech by the name of Emil (Karel Roden) and his goofy Russian sidekick, Oleg (Oleg Taktarov). Emil has dragged Oleg, who really wants nothing more out of life than to become the next Frank Capra, to the States to hook up with his ex-partner in crime. Unfortunately, his old friend Milos and wife have blown the booty from their bank job (for which Emil has served some very hard time) on Rolexes and the like, making for one very perturbed Euro-hothead—the crispy-couple from the tenement being Emil’s admittedly overkill response to Milos and his bride’s lack of loyalty, the brutal murders captured cinéma-vérité style on Oleg’s stolen camcorder.
These two émigrés have found their true callings to the American Dream, with Emil as a burgeoning psycho and Oleg as his documentarian. As the body count builds, Eddie and Jody scurry behind, trailed by Eddie’s own sycophantic documentarian, Eddie Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), the host of a trashy TV tabloid called Top Story. Indicative of this movie’s level of satire is having Hawkins’ new boss spout dire warnings as to the woeful state of the media’s public responsibility. Her name is (nudge, nudge) Cassandra, and of course, no one pays heed to her warnings.
It is here that 15 Minutes begins to lose focus. To a degree, the movie wants to be a black comedy about the dissolution of the American dream, casting a jaundiced eye on a medium that has muddied the collective mindset to the point that the average citizen is willing to squander his or her 15 minutes of fame by appearing on The Jerry Springer Show. The problem is that Writer/Director John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley) doesn’t quite get the big picture. While it’s all well and fine for a movie to set out to satirize the media vulture culture, it ultimately must make some point other than “media bad,” especially if the film itself fails to recognize the gray area between parody and pandering.
While setting up set pieces illustrating how deconstructive trash television is supposed to be, Herzfeld himself shows no cinematic hesitation to layer on, uh, liberal doses of gunfire, car chases, bare boobies and fire, fire, fire! In this case, for the movie to call itself a black comedy is nothing more than a beard, in an attempt to disguise the absurd mechanizations of the plot (at one point, Fire Marshall Jody kidnaps one of the psychos from police custody and drags him to an abandoned warehouse to execute him, only to have a squad of cops arrive to take the suspect back into custody, leaving Jody sulking by himself in the empty building. Right. If one were to assume that in New York City fire marshals are exempt from kidnapping and attempted-murder charges, that could make sense.)
Herzfeld has obviously taken a page from the 1992 Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog, in which a television crew following a serial killer about his rounds ultimately becomes complicit in his escalating sociopathic behavior. The problem is that Herzfeld took the page without reading the whole book—wherein there comes a point where the audience realizes that it has itself become implicated, laughter dying off as it faces the upheld mirror and realizes exactly what it is laughing at. In 15 Minutes there is no culpability, just a guilt free and ultimately toothless smorgasbord of gunfire, car chases, bare boobies, and fire, fire, fire! While that in itself isn’t exactly highbrow entertainment, it is entertainment in its own right. Unfortunately, the hypocrisy of pretending to be anything other than what it ostensibly decries is not only disingenuous, but it’s also, and ultimately, so-o-o 15 minutes ago.