Director: Peter Vack
Writer: Peter Vack
Stars: Catherine Bo-Eun Song, Betsey Brown, Jane Brown
A title for any medium with one as tendentious as “Assholes” is granted - as the cliché goes - to judge a book by its cover. Such was my concern with writer and director Peter Vack’s new aforementioned film, but judge not a title for being vulgar and crass. For every bonkers moment of Assholes, there is a beautifully crafted binary equation that leads to a rather poignant examination of privileged kids in love who lose their minds to rampant drug use. Such binaries may include:bonkers and beautiful; or bizarre yet timely; disgusting (there will be poop!) but affectionate. Regardless of descriptors, Assholes is a fantastic, chaotic rabbit hole of a story that hooked me from its opening lines.
Oh, dear reader, how I would love to spoil the plot of this film so I can write about every frame of this funky film. But here is all you need to know, with a few crumbs at the end.
Adah, brother to Adam (played by Peter Vack), is a recovering addict of some sort, who is – in the opening scene of Assholes – fuming to her psychoanalyst about the paradoxes of sobriety and a muted sex life (an earlier binary, arguably). To paraphrase: “Who wants to fuck another sober person?” Adah squeals, referring to other sober men, and not of herself. “I mean, sober guys are the worst, but the drunk ones just want to take advantage of you and keep questioning why you won’t drink…At this point, I’m ready to fuck a dick that’s hanging from a wall.”
It’s not even three minutes into the film.
Cut to brother Adam at his posh Manhattan apartment, exposing himself to best friend Aaron, asking his bud to examine his penis for possible herpes discharge. Aaron is hardly mum, telling Adam he is absurd and pontificating in 20-something logic about condom use, safety, and sensations (or lack thereof).
Fast forward to Adah and Adam hanging out at Adam’s place. Adam’s herpes has moved north to his upper lip, but judging by the way he hits the bong the way newborns suckle a teat, Adam seems unfazed, as does his no-longer-sober sister, who takes a hit and later contracts Adam’s love virus.
(Speaking of love virus, kudos to the make-up artist who made the herpes sores look like one’s fingers after eating the largest bag of Cheeto’s Puffs this side of America.)
Now that Adah smoked sobriety away, she makes the measured choice to hook-up with Aaron. This comes after we learn that Aaron not only sees the same psychoanalyst as Adah, but that he has an unusual fascination with gaping assholes:
“I used to see a beautiful woman on the street and think only of her beauty, but now I just wonder what her asshole would look like. It’s unhealthy.”
Indeed, gaping assholes is a shared concern by the likes of Aaron and the United States Justice Department of yore (Google John Ashcroft and Two Girls, One Cup), but I digress…
Anyway, Adah gives Aaron herpes, so the two decide – at a clinic, nonetheless – that the they should date since they share a virus like those that share a child, and they will coddle their sickness in gratuitous and unflattering sex, which will include the occasional felatio of the anus. Their drug of choice is poppers, which they purchase conveniently at one of the many convenient stores around New York.
Other important plot points include the role of Adam and Adah’s parents, who are rather centered, albeit aloof when it comes to parenting, a flaw becoming far more apparent when Adah and Aaron’s relationship shocks even Aaron, who is attempting to turn his life around. There is also a demon, but I will say no more.
What makes this movie work so well is its tone, departing from other equally outrageous, yet serious films. Think Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, or even Ray Liotta’s paranoia at the climax of Goodfellas. All of these movies ultimately “have to something to say” about drug use, as if audiences need to be entertained yet reminded that drugs somehow ruin your shit. Assholes can do this without having any pretentious message, for it uses clever filmmaking techniques and inspired acting to propel its Gonzo-esque storytelling into a sardonic and hilarious portrayal of our relationship to drugs.
Consider, for a moment, the attitude of the most casual, misinformed citizen responding to a story about rich kids screwing up their privileged lives because, frankly, they can? Adam is by any definition a punk (an asshole!) who doesn’t have a viable career, but has much iconography in the form of posters and art to signify his lazy rebel nature. Who in their right mind has a picture of the World Trade Center on fire after the infamous 9/11 attacks, painted with the word “Lyes” – misspelled for effect – hanging on their wall? Adjacent to this, another 9/11-themed artwork portraying a plane flying through the buildings, painted in a beautiful mosaic, borrowing heavily from the style of Piet Mondrian?
Would this casual, misinformed citizen garner sympathy for Adam? It’s the moral equivalent of the attitude most of America currently has against black NFL players assuming the role of protestor, as if the only reasonable response to their non-violent outcry is “how dare they, when America has given these black folk so much?” Ah, as if money is the only scale by which all is weighed.
Nevertheless, whatever intentions Vack had for this film, having fun and elevating absurdity was priority number one. It’s the only movie that allows me to use “asshole demon” and “sex in the middle of Times Square” in the same sentence. Assholes is a movie that is meant to be taken seriously, and not at all. It’s a movie that perhaps has a message, but the message is to not care what that message may be. When we learn, however, that assholes no longer become descriptors but a literal manifestation of this most commonly used insult, we can’t help but look away, whether we are laughing or we are shocked. Now that’s a binary I can live with.
Viewed as part of the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality