2007, U.S., 102 minutes, unrated
Writer-director: Thomas Mignone
With: Brittany Snow, Josh Janowicz, Clayne Crawford, Eddie Jemison, Shanna Collins, Candice Accola, Chloe Domont, Angela Sarafyan, Marcus Giamatti, Theresa Russell, James Russo
Music video director Thomas Mignone's debut feature, "On the Doll," a multi-pronged suspense drama set in Los Angeles' porn and prostitution underworld, has big ambitions but gets awfully muddled. "Crash" meets "Pulp Fiction" as several unrelated plots are united, in the course of a jumbled time line, by one stray bullet fired by a cop. That bullet goes off near the start of the movie, moving in slow motion until it hits ... someone. Exactly who isn't revealed until the end of the film, which brings us back to the beginning.
Brittany Snow, the blonde sweetheart from TV's "American Dreams" and "John Tucker Must Die," is the marquee name in the cast, but her role is no larger than those of a half-dozen or so other actors in the film. The closest thing to a central character is Jaron (Josh Janowicz), a sullen but good-hearted kid who works at an alternative newspaper, placing and editing ads from hookers (his boss berates him for wasting time correcting copy). Perky call girl Balery (Snow) comes to the office to place an ad looking for an accomplice in a crime she wants to commit. The levelheaded Jaron initially refuses the ad, but relents when Balery (a name she adopted after her "barely legal" ad was typoed in the paper) explains that she wants to rob a regular customer who's rich but continually stiffs her on tips. She'll give half the stolen money to Jaron, who needs lots of cash to get his childhood sweetheart, Tara (Angela Sarafyan), out of her peep-show imprisonment (why she's being kept against her will in her booth is unclear).
Meanwhile, two high-school girls, Melody and Courtney (Candice Accola and Chloe Domont), are inappropriately involved with a teacher, Mr. Garrett (Eddie Jemison, the techno whiz from "Ocean's Eleven"), who has arranged for them to do some webcam work. Then there's outcall girl Chantel (Shanna Collins, a Neve Campbell look-alike), whose unsavory boyfriend, Wes (Clayne Crawford), drives her to her johns while dealing with pressure from Chantel to get married. Most of the plot pieces connect via a gangster (Paul Ben-Victor) who runs the peep show parlor, the webcam operation and has a link to the alternative paper.
As in Paul Schrader's risible 1979 L.A. porn-world thriller "Hardcore," the sex in "On the Doll" is uniformly bizarre, degrading and joyless. The one customer we see Balery service is a young guy who desires being gagged and tied spreadeagle to a bed and having his balls punched the number of times on a roll of dice. One of Chantel's johns is a shy, nice-looking guy who wants Chantel to punish him by holding his head under water; another wants to have her act like a little girl as he pins her down. While one john receives oral sex (off-camera) and another character masturbates in his car, there is no sex in the movie, and no nudity.
But there is a lot of frank language. While the raunchy talk sounds natural coming from most of the actors, young Snow is out of her element; she can't leave the sweetness behind, no matter how many four-letter words come out of her mouth.
A bald, glaring James Russo appears as a hospital janitor in framing scenes set, we eventually realize, some years earlier, when a younger Jaron (played by a different actor) attacked a patient who had molested him. I've watched the film twice and I still don't know what Theresa Russell's overly emotional character, seen in both that hospital scene and in the main action, is supposed to be: Jaron's therapist? Lawyer? Mother? Big sister? I had no idea that the terrible scar on the back of peep-show prisoner Tara was from the removal of a Siamese twin (!) until it was mentioned in one of the supplementary interviews on the DVD. And ballbuster Balery's robbery, in its execution, requires no accomplice at all, so why drag poor Jaron, or anyone else, into it?
Peace Arch has put together a full DVD package, albeit centered around a mediocre movie. The extras include unusually revealing clips (shot on video) of two scenes being rehearsed and shot; five deleted or extended scenes; an alternative, less hopeful ending; short but informative interviews with the major cast members (but not Brittany Snow) and the production designer; two music videos tied to clips from the film; and, of most interest, a look at how an early sequence involving a dead, maggot-infested bird was filmed. ("Maggot wrangler" may become a new Hollywood guild job designation.)
The deleted/extended scenes and the extra ending are presented with commentary by director Thomas Mignone, but nobody turned down the volume on the scenes themselves, so much of what he says is hard to make out. Additionally, three trailers appear when you first insert the DVD: "The Babysitters" (a red-flagged "restricted" trailer), "Towards Darkness" and "Steel City."
The film was shot in the very wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is presented on disc in 16:9 (1.78:1) widescreen. On newer TVs, the entire original image is viewable, but with black borders all around; on older, square sets, there are black bars on top and bottom, but while the image fills the screen left to right, the extreme portions are cut off. For example, a scene 44 minutes into the film has Josh Janowicz and Brittany Snow conversing, but half of her face is missing -- the effect is nearly as off-putting as the egregious old pan-and-scan.
The movie was shot in convincingly seedy locales and downmarket neighborhoods, and the color has been somewhat drained out, giving outdoor scenes in particular a gray drabness -- though reds appear prominently, as blood and, cleverly, as a penis-shaped lipstick.
Two soundscapes are available: a well-balanced 5.1 Surround and 2.0 stereo. The 16 chapters provide adequate navigation options.
Presenting the world of porn and prostitution in a decidedly unsexy light, "On the Doll" deserves high marks for ambition. The mostly young, unknown actors do a convincing job under first-time writer-director Thomas Mignone, whose structural adventurousness is intriguing. But the movie feels awkward, forced and occasionally confused, and it needed to be a lot more disturbing than it is. Top-billed Brittany Snow tries to escape her good-girl image with a "daring" role as a prostitute, but she's about as genuine as a Times Square Rolex. Despite some decent bonus material, this is a rental at best.