Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movie review: Disturbing Behavior

My only professional qualification for doing movie reviews was the fact that I was the only person on staff who lived close enough to D.C. (our offices were in Manassas, Virginia) to attend press screenings. I enjoyed reviewing quite a lot, and not just because of the free movies. This was one of the earliest reviews that I wrote, for an early version of the low-budget, low-wattage horror films that young actors are required to do by law these days. I think posting this review is the first time I've thought about this movie since 1998; at the time, Katie Holmes was an up-and-coming starlet. Now she's Tom Cruise's pet and something of a national punchline. Life is weird.

Not At All Disturbing, Not Even the Smallest Little Bit
Chris Galdieri
webdate: 7/24/98
The only thing that's genuinely disturbing about Disturbing Behavior is the fact that such a disjointed, incoherent, and poorly constructed film actually made it to the screen.

The movie is set in Cradle Bay, a town on an island in Washington State, and centers around Steve Clark (James Marsden), whose family moves there in search of a fresh start after Steve's brother commits suicide. In addition to a nearly formalized array of cliques at the local high school -- car guys, computer geeks, skateboarders, and the like -- there are also the "Blue Ribbons," the squeaky-clean jock- and cheerleader-types who belong to a nebulously explained youth group run by Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood), the school psychiatrist. You can tell right away there's something odd about the Blue Ribbons: they wear (gasp!) sweater vests! They hang out at the (horrors!) yogurt shop! They listen to (oh, the humanity!) Wayne Newton!

Actually, that last one is pretty scary.

In addition to their ultra-clean-cut appearance, the Blue Ribbons are known from time to time to fly into fits of uncontrollable rage, attacking anyone nearby. For some reason, no one in town seems to mind, and the local sheriff gladly covers up any incidents.

The only kids at school who think there's something odd about all this are Gavin (Nick Stahl), his pasty-faced doper friend U.V., and Rachel (Dawson's Creek's Katie Holmes). You can tell right away that she's a bad grrl: she's got a bunch of piercings and wears leather. She pouts and rolls her eyes a lot, too. Who said method acting was dead?

Gavin is convinced that he saw one member of the Blue Ribbons kill a girl and a sheriff's deputy, but no one believes him. Apparently, no one notices when the girl and the deputy stop showing up for school and work, either. Gavin is certain that some kind of mind control is behind the Blue Ribbons and the radical behavioral changes that students undergo when they join the group.
Steve and Rachel don't believe Gavin's conspiracy theory, of course, until one night when Gavin's parents sign him up for the Blue Ribbons. And the next day, Gavin shows up for school with a haircut and wearing a dreaded sweater vest.

Once this happens, Steve and Rachel investigate, and find themselves plunged into a web of conspiracy and deception, learn that the Blue Ribbons have been brainwashed by Dr. Caldicott, yada yada yada.

There's very little in this movie that hasn't been seen before, and done better, in other movies. Een the film's press materials refer to the teens as "Stepford-like." What we see of the Blue Ribbons' indoctrination is a riff on the brainwashing tapes from The Parallax View. Other sequences have been lifted in toto from Total Recall and Star Trek III. When a movie starts ripping off an odd-numbered Star Trek movie, you know there's a problem. Even the Blue Ribbons' name calls to mind The Wave, that ABC Afterschool Special where a teacher turned his class into brainwashed neo-Nazis and used blue as the group's unifying symbolic color.

Structurally, the film is a mess and displays no internal consistency in terms of time or geography. It's the kind of movie where two characters can start having a conversation at the high school in one scene and are on the beach in the next continuing the conversation exactly where it left off at the high school. In another sequence, Steve and his friends decide at the end of the school day to go get beer. Hey, they are rebels, after all. When we cut to them in the parking lot of the grocery store, trying to find an adult to buy said beer for them, it's pitch dark out. Either this is appallingly sloppy construction, or Cradle Bay is on one big darn island and only has one grocery store.

The script has the characters do things that make little or no sense simply to advance the plot along. At one point, Steve is attacked by a group of Blue Ribbons -- while he's taking a walk through the woods at night in the rain. At another point, Gavin overhears the meeting at which his parents sign him up for the Blue Ribbons. He knows that if he goes home, he'll be brainwashed. So what does he do? He goes home. He not only goes home, he goes home, records a message for his friends on his CD burner, leaves his house to hide the CD where they'll find it later (as opposed to, say, going to one of their houses just giving it to them -- or for that matter, staying there overnight and leaving town the next morning), and then goes back home, where he apparently twiddles his thumbs until the Blue Ribbons come for him.

Disturbing Behavior
also suffers from its lack of a clearly defined antagonist. Sure, the Blue Ribbons are mean and nasty when no one's looking and beat the stuffing out of Steve a few times, but they're pretty much a faceless horde, yet not faceless enough to be frightening in their anonymity.

And while Dr. Caldicott, as the mastermind behind the brainwashing program, would seem like the logical choice of villain, he appears in only a few scenes and has very little direct conflict with Steve until the very end of the film. There's no one to root against except for a vaguely defined "them."

By and large, there's little that's good to be said about the performances in Disturbing Behavior. As Rachel, Holmes is a cipher, although much of that must be blamed on the script. We're told just about nothing on this character; we're apparently just supposed to be wowed by the fact that the chick from Dawson's Creek has a pierced nose. James Marsden is amiable, if bland, as Steve.

The only person in the cast having any fun is William Sadler, who plays the school's reclusive janitor, obsessed with getting rid of the town's problems with rats. Sadler is the only actor who appears to realize what a ludicrously bad movie he's trapped in, and goes completely over-the-top with a performance that's a welcome relief from the rest of the movie's ridiculously solemn ponderousness.

The sole virtue of Disturbing Behavior is its brevity; the film clocks in at well under an hour and a half. So if you do find yourself somehow trapped in Cradle Bay, don't worry. You won't have to stay very long.

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