Rated R for pervasive strong language, scenes of brutal violence, constant drug and alcohol use and some sexuality
Wow... God almighty, this was the most '90s film I've ever seen, and probably will ever see. The protagonist, Cliff Spab (a young Stephen Dorff), is a twenty-year-old white-trash slacker with shaggy blond hair who was pretty obviously inspired by Kurt Cobain, sucked into fifteen minutes of fame without ever being asked. The soundtrack is like a "greatest hits" of early-mid '90s grunge, punk, and alt-metal, and is one of the few things about the film that I do not have any conflicted feelings about; seriously, on its own merits, it was great. And its message is right there in the title: "so fucking what?", Spab's catchphrase, is pretty much all the cynicism of the '90s wrapped in a neat little ball.
The thing is, though, it doesn't really show off the best of the decade. Compared to, say, Natural Born Killers, which came out the same year and had very similar subject matter, S.F.W. feels empty and hollow, like the slick corporate version of the grunge movement; the Nickelback to Natural Born Killers' Pearl Jam. It occasionally tries to take stabs at relevant satire, particularly at the beginning and the end, but for most of its runtime it wallows in the life of its protagonist and the uninteresting assholes around him, so much that, by the time it finally starts paying attention to the actual story again in the last ten minutes, it's a shock that comes too little, too late, with a ton of threads left dangling, an utterly ridiculous series of events (especially in hindsight), and two seemingly opposed messages pulling the film in either direction.
The plot revolves around the aftermath of a 36-day siege at a small-town convenience store. Split Image, a group of terrorists whose motivations are left deliberately vague, took the cashier and four shoppers hostage, and had only one demand for the police and the media: play the video they record of the hostages every night on the national news, or they will start killing hostages. For just over five weeks, they did just that, until two of the hostages, Spab and his buddy Joe, fought back and killed their captors. Spab and a fellow hostage, Wendy Pfister (Reese Witherspoon), are the only survivors, and have become national celebrities as a result of their experience. Spab, however, lost his best friend, and now has to contend with being thrust into a limelight that he never wanted, which many of his pals -- his girlfriend Monica (Joey Lauren Adams), his co-workers at the burger joint, his friend Morrow (Jake Busey) -- are now exploiting for their own ends.
The single greatest problem with the film is Cliff Spab, the man we're meant to be rooting for. It's amazing that Stephen Dorff was able to give a good performance, bringing to life the '90s slacker attitude, as the writing does him no favors. After ninety minutes, we still never get a good idea of who Spab is beyond his image. We're told that Spab's rants and musings in front of the camera inspired a lot of people, but from what we see of the hostage tapes, it seems to be little more than a goofball act flipping the bird to his captors. In one scene, we get an old hippie couple telling him that he said things that "needed to be said"... what, exactly? How did this guy become Kurt Cobain Mk. 2? We're simply told that this guy became a media icon, and we're shown how people react to him, but we're never shown just what he did, good or bad, that could convince me how this happened. The real Cobain made era-defining music. O. J. Simpson was a football star who killed his wife (never proven, but we all know). Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's dick, and when said husband had his dick reattached, he became a porn star. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a killing spree, and left a mountain of diaries and home videos explaining their twisted mindset. Hell, even Kim Kardashian, the modern-day queen of "famous for being famous", was a hot socialite who made a sex tape, and had a fame-hungry mother willing to exploit that to make her family famous. What did Cliff Spab do? Sure, he helped defeat the terrorists, but his heroism wasn't the reason he became famous; it's made clear that the public's adoration of him began long before that, thanks to his "fuck the world" mindset. Problem is, that mindset is never really explored. Furthermore, while we're told that he has a lot of angst over the death of his friend, we're never shown any of that angst outside of a few moments early on. He gives his "I lost my friend Joe" spiel early on to his girlfriend (and Joe's sister) Monica, but for the rest of the film, Joe is virtually forgotten, with even Monica vanishing from the film.
The film's other problem has to do with the second of its ostensible protagonists, Wendy Pfister. Again, Reese Witherspoon gives a solid performance as the "teen queen" turned celebrity, but she's barely in the film, even though she has top billing and, by all rights, should've had a much larger role. The finale hinges on the friendship, and eventual romance, that Spab and Wendy had built over the course of their capture, yet until the end, Wendy never appears outside of a single television interview demonstrating that she loathes the limelight, as well as her appearances in the hostage videos that are otherwise focused on Cliff. Wendy doesn't get any sort of character to build! How was she coping with the experience and the media? What was it like for her in school? She's barely in the film despite being the second most important character, someone who should've had equal screen time with Spab's grunge posturing.
And how about that plot? Something like two-thirds of the plot threads that this film opens up at the beginning are dropped and left hanging. What was the deal with the FBI agent who thinks Spab was in on the hostage scenario? He shows up in the beginning and again in the middle of the film, and it's mentioned that Spab is wanted by the police as a result, but at the end, it goes completely unmentioned. All he exists to do is to drive the "plot" forward and get Spab moving. Speaking of his suspicions, what was Split Image, the terrorist group that took over the minimart, trying to accomplish? We're left to only guess at their motivations. A better film might have implied what their goal was, or left it deliberately vague for artistic purposes, and indeed, this film does seem to make a stab at the former. The fact that the terrorists send their video to the networks to play during the news seems to imply that their goals have something to do with our media culture. But what, exactly? In a film that tries to be a satire of "trash TV" and our obsession with celebrities, this question mark hangs over the entire film.
Finally, there's that damn ending. (Spoilers, if you give a damn.) Just when it seemed that the film might finally have found its plot, a nerdy, overachieving classmate of Wendy's (played by a young Amber Benson, of future Buffy fame) shoots Spab and Wendy while they're speaking at a school assembly while shouting "everything matters!", a response to Spab's "so fucking what?" nihilism that calls for young people to take a more proactive role in their lives. She becomes the tabloid media's new "it girl" as it latches onto her motto. Meanwhile, Spab and Wendy recover from their wounds, fall in love, and run off, free from the media limelight. Never mind the idea of a girl who shot two people in school getting any kind of sympathetic portrayal from the tabloid media -- nothing about this ending makes any sense, coming with little to no buildup. It's like they didn't know how to end it, and just threw anything on screen when they realized that they needed an ending. And whose side was the film on? That of Spab and Wendy, or on their would-be assassin, whose message is an explicit refutation of the sort of grunge slacker lifestyle that Spab follows? Throughout the film, "so fucking what?" became my motto as well, but not out of agreement with its sentiments. Rather, I was more interested in everything else going on -- in the terrorists, in Cliff, in Wendy, in Joe, in that FBI agent character -- than in any of the events and people the film felt obligated to force me to watch. "So fucking what if Jake Busey's character is angry about his girlfriend lying to him about being pregnant? Get back to the actual story!" And when that ending hit... well, "S.F.W." became "W.T.F."
Above all, though, the film's greatest failing is this. For all its image, its posing, its flannel, and its legitimately great soundtrack (which I cannot stress enough was amazing), it's all sizzle and no steak. It felt horribly inauthentic, interested more in exploiting the style of the '90s and only briefly and half-heartedly exploring its value system. It wanted to be a "grunge movie", but what it inadvertently did was demonstrate why the grunge movement burned out -- like punk back in the '70s, it got hijacked by marketers and went corporate, and the people who had any artistic integrity either abandoned it (like Pearl Jam in their fights with Ticketmaster), went off a cliff into despair (like Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley), or got squeezed out. It's barely a movie, and certainly not the media satire that it wants to be, but rather, a marketing tool cooked up in some Hollywood boardroom twenty years ago when their market researchers told them that "grunge" was what the kids liked these days.
Score: 1 out of 5
As I sat down to write this review and think of what I thought about this film, I initially started to like it a bit more. But as I kept thinking about it, that initial, meager approval vanished and I went right back to hating it. It's another one of those dumb, vapid movies that thinks it's a lot smarter than it is without remotely measuring up to its aspirations. If you want an intelligent media satire from the same year this was made, watch Natural Born Killers instead.