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1 review, 3 user ratings

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Chat Room
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Film That Amuses and Then Repels"
2 stars

Starts off amiably, but then turns mean-spirited and stereotypical, and the whole thing self-destructs.

If you haven't heard of the comedy Chat Room, you're certainly not alone, for the title was news to me until its DVD case caught my eye at the video store the other day. The basic lowdown is it's terribly uneven, boasting a passable first-half only to lose its bearings in the second by trotting out a series of repulsive, painfully unfunny, and just plain mean-spirited set pieces. It's as if co-writer/producer/director Barry Bowles had made the film under a Jeckyl & Hyde-like psychological guise, demonstrating his semi-sensible tact while fighting off the throes of a dastardly corrupting influence. Chat Room has a good many flaws which don't necessarily detract from the fun when Bowles is happily prowling through the lives of his three leading characters; but in what comes off as a complete one-eighty in his sensibilities, he eventually derails the whole thing by letting the film's genial tone slip away and replacing it with a moral ugliness that quickly derails the entire project. Bowles turns out to be not only his own worst enemy, but ours, too -- we feel the fools for having allowed the film to glide over its flaws in lieu of its initial good graces. In the end, we're forced to admit that we've been had.

The stars of the film (Brian Hooks as the conniving Max, Darryl Bronson as the hesitant Drew, and Christopher Richards as the jolly, obese Jelly Roll) are new and quasi-fresh faces to us, and in a remarkably short amount of time they manage to work up an agreeable, laid-back camaraderie. They're a trio of Los Angeles losers who hold court in a neighborhood rib joint as if it were their castle; they're the hipsters who give the surroundings more color than is entirely warranted. But they're hip to a place where they don't have to worry about being one-upped by people more prosperous than themselves (which, mind you, isn't saying a hell of a lot -- a window washer with a fat wallet of one-dollar bills at the cash register could incite some territorial friction). Either Darryl's ragging on Jelly Roll for his excessive (and far-from-exquisite) eating habits, or Max is dodging the romantic advancements of the clumsy, ditsy waitress Wendy (Deya Simone), who, when asked "What's up?" responds by looking up and replying "The ceiling." (No, I didn't make that up; unfortunately, neither did the screenwriters.) You've met people like Max, Drew, and Jelly Roll before. They're of the insufferable type who spend far too much time finding faults with others while remaining oblivious to their own. Yet they manage to emit some charm, and for a while the film benefits from this; the story may not have much momentum -- hell, it really doesn't have any to speak of -- but in mirroring its characters' genial uncouthness, it has a kind of shaggy-dog affability that allows it to get by on an undemanding level (for a while, anyway).

The guys' nondescript existences are rattled when they run into an old high-school buddy by the name of J-Ron (Troy Winbush), a now-successful Texas dentist who has returned to L.A. to attend their ten-year high school reunion. But rather than catching up with his old classmates, J-Ron's more interested in cashing in on a bet they all made back then: the one who brings the "baddest-looking" (a.k.a. most beautiful) date to the reunion wins the money pot -- which has grown from $50 to $50,000 over the years thanks to some shrewd investment in Internet stocks. (Not to be bothered with anything as mundane as irony, the filmmakers neglect to point this now-relevant aspect up). Convinced that the suave J-Ron has got a hot honey to trot with, the guys (who downright suck at picking up women) resort to Internet chat rooms to hook up with their dream date in hopes of winning the pot and splitting it to help better their lives (like buying materialistic non-essentials like rims when none of them even owns a car). What ensues is a series of mishaps where the women who turn up at their doors are a far cry (and sometimes, a howl or bark) from their advertised to-die-for physical appearances: Jelly Roll's date has a pretty face but a mustache and matching hairy arm pits ; Drew's, a white geriatric transvestite who arrives in a matching white limo; and Max's, a three-hundred pound whopper who introduces herself as "Peaches," to which an aghast Max responds, "Daaaamn, how many'd you eat!?"

While far from being inspired, these humor-intended happenstances pretty much elicit the desired response: they put a smile on your face. And there's a more humorous one that follows, which provides the film with its funniest moment: in his second "hook-up" attempt, Drew knocks on the door of a woman's whose Internet picture is pretty ravishing, but the woman who answers is considerably older and "skanky" in appearance, and Drew (fed up to the max) goes on a great verbal tirade, abusing her with every negative descriptive in the book -- he's still doing this as the woman's daughter (the ravishing one from the 'Net) comes outside and announces herself. (Bowles could have made the payoff more effective, however, had he trimmed about ten to fifteen seconds off so the audience didn't get wise to it before being revealed.) The setups to these zingers could have been better prepared and worked out, so they'd have something of a visual life to them that the camera can bring out and improve upon -- in the manner in which director F. Gary Gray brought to the show in 1995's cult classic Friday. But proper shaping would've likely provided too classy a framework for this kind of rather lowbrow humor to sustain itself, so the bland camerabatics and loose-goose staging come off more as benefits than deterrents (though it still can't cover blatant lifts from other African-American-populated comedies, like when Jelly Roll pours tons of sugar into a jar of Kool-Aid mix and proceeds to stir it with his forearm ala 1990's excellent House Party).

Yet the film wears out its good graces shortly thereafter, and it turns incredibly (and offensively) chauvinistic. At first, you think the guys are going to wise up to the blunt realization that they're not particularly worthy of a dream girl in light of their close-minded sexism; yet they're placed on a pedestal of gender superiority, deemed as the worthy recipients of any given drop-dead gorgeous woman. The way the filmmakers present it, these shallow, insensitive men aren't the problem -- educated and good-looking women are. So what if the males value nothing more than physical beauty? They're feisty, horny guys, after all, so their quest to get laid, and get lain often, by the cream of the crop of the female species seems to be (again, according to the filmmakers) uncompromisingly some kind of moral high ground. In 1982's superb Diner, writer/director Barry Levinson showcased a quartet of chauvinistic 1950s-circa twentysomethings who advocated the intrinsic value of "hanging out with the guys" but were utterly hopeless at forming productive relationships with women. As gut-funny as the film was, it also played out like something resembling a tragedy --you knew these guys would eventually lead sad and non-emotionally-enriching lives when their hanging-out with each other became a thing of the past. Granted, one doesn't necessarily adhere similar artistic demands to a film like Chat Room, yet it gives you a pretty fair reading on things: Levinson incisively explored where Bowles simplistically exploits. And, boy, does he ever exploit!

Where the initial dating mismatches were passable, the ensuing ones are simply unfunny, relying on grotesqueness and obviousness to slam things home. There's a woman who keeps liposuction fat in jars on her fireplace mantel and proceeds to snack on it at a restaurant while her date fights back the instinctual urge to hurl. (Not even Fight Club went this far!) In another restaurant-related incident, a flaky female is convinced she's transforming into the The Fly and has conversations with an imaginary friend who she talks openly to in public. (As if this isn't enough, she proceeds to purge herself with her middle finger in the middle of the meal.) There's a bandana-wearing, tough-talking chick from Englewood who picks one of the guys up in a BMW, and you know from practically the moment they walk into a convenience store that she's going to brandish a weapon and rob it. And I must not omit the charming estrogen-charged specimen who invites Jelly Roll into her place to take part in some business involving a chicken -- and that's for a sacrificing-to-the-gods purpose rather than a culinary one. Bowles doesn't know how to set up a gag to save his life -- he lays everything on thick -- and telegraphs every one from so far away the viewer can just about spot them from the next voting district over. It's hard for a film this loosely woven to unravel but Chat Room dubiously succeeds in doing just that. (This is the kind of cinematic endeavor where the mixing of ketchup and mustard and Captain Crunch cereal is perceived as being a supposed laugh riot.)

Oh, I chuckled at some of the lines. I also admit to having developed a grudging liking for the good-natured Jelly Roll, whose innate desire to devour anything even remotely resembling a food particle appealing in some odd way. (When asked upon exiting a restaurant how he could possibly be carrying a doggie bag being that he didn't have anything left on his plate, he replies, "I ordered it.") But there's only so much mileage that can be derived from a bare-bones story premise with a basic shortage of creative ideas, and Barry Bowles's having nothing much to offer up here is irrefutably validated with the dismal development of the material. The film isn't painful to get through simply because it's so undefined and weightless that its ability to affect the audience in even a negative manner would be accrediting it with more artistic substance than it even remotely merits. In the end, Chat Room ends up living up (and even down) to our already-low expectations -- so much so that you might feel inclined to invoke a citizen's arrest for its filmmaker who's to cinema what Chevy Chase once was to talk shows.

Another straight-to-video disposable that never should have seen the light of day.

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originally posted: 12/21/02 02:45:23
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User Comments

6/22/08 Derek Fleek A guilty pleasure 4 stars
7/06/04 whiz41 it was really great and awesome 5 stars
2/12/04 Beans Shit I liked this movie, better than some of the suck movies on premier film now, 4 stars
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  02-Feb-2002 (R)



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