Revisiting ‘Very Bad Things,’ the ‘Rough Night’ of 1998

very-bad-thingsLucia Aniello’s dark comedy Rough Night, which began life under the working title Move That Body, will face audiences and critics when it opens tomorrow. Despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon in the cast, the film may have a steep uphill climb ahead of it due to its grim central premise: A Miami bachelorette party turns tragic when an overenthusiastic reveler (Jillian Bell) accidentally kills a male stripper. When a trailer for the film dropped in March, it inspired a wave of outrage over its perceived callousness concerning the safety of sex workers.

But this story was nothing new. The broad outlines of Rough Night’s plot will be quite familiar to anyone who remembers writer-director Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things from 1998.

The inciting incident in that movie, after all, was the accidental death of a stripper at a rowdy bachelor party in Las Vegas. In fact, the premise may not even have been new when Berg used it. At the time, he was accused of having purloined the plot from a now totally forgotten 1997 film called Stag directed by Gavin Wilding. Berg denied the plagiarism charges but dutifully changed the profession of one supporting character from baker to mechanic in order to avoid any confusion.

For the record, Very Bad Things centers around Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau), a nervous groom-to-be whose fiancee Laura (Cameron Diaz) is turning into a bridezilla for the ages. Mere days before the nuptials, Kyle heads off for a night of drinking, drugging, and debauchery in Vegas with his four best friends: sleazy real estate agent Robert Boyd (Christian Slater), taciturn mechanic Charles Moore (Leland Orser), uptight family man Adam Berkow (Daniel Stern), and Adam’s hot-headed younger brother Michael (Jeremy Piven, a last-minute replacement for Adam Sandler). A coked-up Michael accidentally kills stripper Tina (porn star Kobe Tai, billed as “Carla Scott”), and Boyd convinces the group to bury her body in the desert. But, soon, the men must commit more murders to cover up the first one. Now very paranoid, they start turning on each other, and the body count steadily rises. Along the way, Boyd reveals himself to be remarkably adept at murder and deception, and even Laura emerges as a sociopathic Lady Macbeth figure.

When it opened, Very Bad Things left critics either underwhelmed, baffled, or appalled. It currently scores an anemic 44% at Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences stayed away, and the film failed to recoup its $30 million budget. (Presumably, DVD releases and cable showings have helped make up the shortfall.) While Berg’s directing career continued to thrive in the coming years, with films like Friday Night Lights (2004) and Hancock (2008), he never approached anything remotely like Very Bad Things, his feature directing debut, again. In fact, he has done comparatively little screenwriting in the past two decades, though he did write and direct the 2016 drama Patriots Day.

The most prominent condemnation of Berg’s first movie came from Roger Ebert, who wrote: “Very Bad Things filled me with dismay. The material doesn’t match the genre; it’s an attempt to exploit black humor without the control of tone necessary to pull it off. I left the theater feeling sad and angry.” He awarded the film one star out of a possible four, while still complimenting Christian Slater’s performance and allowing that the film “isn’t bad on the technical and acting level.” He’d previously discussed the film in a report from the 1998 Toronto Film Festival called “The New Geek Cinema.” There, Very Bad Things was described as one of a number of then-recent films (others included Happiness and Apt Pupil) dealing with forbidden or taboo subjects. When Ebert used the term “geek,” he meant it as a reference to carnival sideshow performers, not nerds.

Nearly 20 years later, it’s worth reexamining Very Bad Things to judge whether or not it deserved the harsh treatment it originally received. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why audiences passed on it. Very Bad Things was filmed in late 1997, well before the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary was released to massive success in July 1998. But viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Berg’s movie was trying to ride on Mary’s coattails. Along with the participation of Cameron Diaz, Very Bad Things included some of the same elements as Mary: dorky guys in tuxedos, an injured dog, and some gallows humor at the expense of a character on crutches (Adam’s bratty son has muscular dystrophy). Even the posters for Very Bad Things, utilizing plenty of whitespace, strongly resembled the Mary ad campaign. By the time Berg’s movie arrived in November, it may have looked like a cheap Farrelly knockoff.

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In its focus on the minutiae of lifeminivans, long-distance rates, padded seats, Whizzers candyand its assortment of selfish, petty characters, Very Bad Things also bore a passing resemblance to Seinfeld, a famously cold-blooded sitcom whose final episode also aired in 1998. When Christian Slater’s character proposes relocating the Israeli people to Mexico, it feels like the kind of crackpot notion Kramer might have devised. Very Bad Things‘ Jeremy Piven had, in fact, made a memorable 1993 guest appearance on Seinfeld as a nebbishy actor.

In certain aspects, time has been kind to Very Bad Things. It was wise, for instance, to dress the main characters as generic, preppy, middle-class suburbanites rather than give them trendier, flashier clothes that would have anchored them to a specific moment in time.  David Henning’s surprisingly dark, moody cinematography makes the film look more like a thriller than a comedy, which makes it feel like the characters’ actions really do have serious consequences. And Berg assembled a marvelously eclectic soundtrack, including some deep cuts by Latin jazz musician Willie Bobo. Okay, that bro-friendly Limp Bizkit cover of George Michael’s “Faith” hasn’t exactly aged like fine wine, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Where Very Bad Things really excels is in playing on the viewer’s sense of guilt. The main assumption of this film is that, given the right circumstances, even upstanding members of mainstream society can be coerced into committing—or at least passively condoning—horrible acts. Ordinary men will lie and even kill to save themselves, suggests Very Bad Things. Berg maintained in press interviews that the script was a morality tale at heart. When he was accused of nihilism, he pointed out that the characters in the movie suffer greatly for their transgressions. In fact, it could be argued that the characters who stand by quietly and say nothing in the presence of evil are ultimately given the harshest punishments. Their fates are worse than death.

On the other hand, critics could rightly point out that Berg feels seemingly no sympathy for the characters who die along the way in Very Bad Things, not even the innocent ones. We in the audience are generally expected to laugh at the carnage and bloodshed, as when the main characters have to reassemble two bodies that they’ve just hacked to pieces. Most of the violence is played for Three Stooges-style slapstick, only with gore effects added. Meanwhile, Adam Berkow is the most religious and conscience-driven of the groomsmen, the one who is most troubled by the murders and the cover-ups, but he’s also the film’s most ridiculous, hysterical character. Daniel Stern plays him as a complete buffoon, shrieking and stumbling around, so he’s not very convincing as the movie’s moral center.

And what about the film’s treatment of women? Frankly, it’s not great. Modern viewers might be appalled at the depiction of Tina the stripper, whose corpse is coldly dismissed by Boyd as “a 105-pound problem,” but the other female characters fare no better. Diaz’s Laura is a shrill, one-note stereotype: the nag, the harpy, the harridan. She never actually hits her husband-to-be upside the head with a rolling pin, but that’s a mere technicality. And then there’s Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Adam’s no-nonsense spouse. Berg’s script (a fascinating document in its own right) describes her as “very aggressive” and “mired in domestic resentment.” In the film, Michael refers to her as a “frigid swamp hog.” Still in all, mostly thanks to Tripplehorn’s nuanced performance, Lois emerges as the smartest character in Very Bad Things, and the film’s most intense, fascinating scene might be the one in which she confronts the surviving groomsmen about what really happened in Vegas.

For a film that generated a fair amount of controversy upon its original release, Very Bad Things has largely been ignored since the late ‘90s. Berg and his actors clearly moved on from this project to other things and didn’t look back. The movie is far from perfect, featuring wildly inconsistent acting, grotesquely cartoonish characters, regrettable stereotypes, and some ill-advised attempts at wackiness (the less said about that Jewish funeral scene, the better). And yet, Very Bad Things has an undeniable impact, largely because Peter Berg knows how to prey upon the fears and weaknesses of the average viewer.

I saw this film on opening day back in November 1998 at a theater near Flint, Michigan, and I can report that it played to dead silence, eliciting not one solitary chuckle from the audience. At the time, I was disappointed. I had paid for some wicked fun, and I left feeling vaguely ashamed instead. Now, I think the movie’s ability to leave people dumbfounded is its greatest strength.

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