Friday, April 21, 2000

No new tale to tell

Movie: Gossip

Posted on Fri, Apr 21, 2000 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Our Rating: 2.50

In some respects, "Gossip" is a grown-up version of a children's learning activity I recall from the mid-1960s. A group of kids would sit in a circle, and one would be asked to think of a short sentence to whisper to the child next to him. So it would continue, until the statement wound back around to the first kid. Thus, something like "Tom Redd is a cub scout" would morph into "Dom and Fred got kicked out." It was an exercise in one of the immutable laws of mass communication: As it travels from ear to ear, the truth has a way of becoming distorted.

The difference between that game and the feature-film debut of TV director Davis Guggenheim ("NYPD, Blue," "ER," "Party of Five")? The former, if memory serves me correctly, was a lot more entertaining. And it didn't wear out its welcome nearly as quickly as "Gossip," a rather overstated, illogical Generation Y thriller penned by Gregory Poirier ("Rosewood") and Theresa Rebeck ("Harriet the Spy"). The writing pair have peopled their script with spoiled-rich college students and pompous professors who are uniformly whiny, self-absorbed and disloyal. It's difficult to work up much sympathy for any of these characters, let alone see why anyone would choose them as the best friends or significant others the story positions them to be.

"Gossip" opens with a scene that's designed to demonstrate the casual brilliance of its three central characters. At an impossibly trendy Manhattan nightspot, wealthy, handsome undergrad Derrick (James Marsden of "Disturbing Behavior" and TV's "Second Noah") and his cute but underfunded roommate, Jones (Lena Headey of "Mrs. Dalloway"), convince a bartender that their other roommate, Travis (Norman Reedus), is the mistreated son of a famous rock star. "Is it Jagger?" the barkeep asks. Free drinks ensue, and the quiet but soulful Travis becomes the recipient of friendly smiles and inquiring glances.

With that success under their collective belt, it only takes one class in mass communications and journalism -- led by the pretentious Professor Goodwin (Eric Bogosian) -- for the trio of troublemakers to hatch an experiment that ends in disaster. At a swanky party, Derrick watches new-gal-on-campus Naomi (Kate Hudson of "200 Cigarettes") engage in a drunken embrace with her boyfriend, Beau (Joshua Jackson of TV's "Dawson's Creek"). Back at their impossibly spacious, well-appointed loft, the three conspirators decide to spread a rumor that the beautiful, chaste Naomi lost her virginity at that party. The "gossip" spreads like wildfire (this segment is the film's most interesting) and mutates into a variety of lascivious stories, one of which leads to criminal charges being leveled against a leading character.

In addition to its other shortcomings, Guggenheim's rather obnoxious little entertainment is dragged down by some of the (unintentionally) cheesiest dialogue heard in a while. "I just don't get women who are afraid of sex," one flirtatious young woman tells Derrick. In lamenting the unfocused nature of a postmodern video installation he's created, Travis admits, "Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing." Responds Travis: "Trying to get at the truth, man." And later, the egomaniacal Derrick complains about an old flame's decision to forego sex: "Generally, women would be perfectly happy to sleep with me." In the patently unreal world of "Gossip," this actually works as a pick-up line.

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