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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Four Letter Words
Four Letter Words
Music Video Distributors // Unrated // September 10, 2002
List Price: $12.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted July 30, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Someone once summarized the excellent movie Laws of Gravity (stuck in non-release limbo) as "The guys fuckin' hang out and do shit." The first half of that tidy little plot description pretty much says it all about Four Letter Words, Sean Baker's super-low-budget feature about a bunch of former high school classmates who get together for a kegger. The movie's entire running time consists of a dozen (or so) horndog characters standing around shooting the shit. They tease each other for their virginity, drunkenness and stupidity. The movie opens with some pretty legit looking barfing and quickly piles on fistfights and pot smoking. In between the bad behavior are some surprisingly insightful moments. A short conversation between a bully and a nerd about Doctor Who is funny on its own but it also perfectly illustrates how people purposefully get under each other's skin. Another conversation where one character goes into the dietary reasons why he prefers Asian women is pretty funny as well, showing how he's justified his quirks against criticism.

The overall structure of Four Letter Words is pretty simple. It starts late at night when the party is starting to wind down, and it continues until the last straggler leaves. But within this simple set-up it does a nice job of jumping from one story to another. Baker manages to edit together snippets of many different scenes in a way that feels organic instead of jumpy. There is a rhythm to the editing, which constantly switches from one set of characters to another, then another, and then back. Baker shows an over-reliance on jump-cuts but at least that technique helps keep individual scenes from bogging down. Usually the film has moved on to the next batch of characters before any one scene starts to feel too long. That may not sound like high-praise but this isn't one of those shooting-the-shit movies where every scene feels an hour long. It does develop some momentum and the funny moments come with just enough frequency to keep things interesting.

The dialog is pretty natural (obviously the product of real conversations and improvisation) and most of the cast is surprisingly good. Some stand-outs include Fred Berman as the host of the party, and Vincent Radwinsky and Matthew Dawson as some of the partygoers. The material is far from deep (even though I generally liked the film I'm still not quite sure why Baker felt the need to make it) but the cast makes up for that. Hopefully some of them will get more chances to develop their skills in other films.

Four Letter Words adds up to more than the sum of its parts. At first it feels like just another attempt by a young filmmaker to mimic Kevin Smith (which, as far as I'm concerned, is always a mistake) but ultimately it creates a host of true, sad, flawed characters and gives them a chance to voice their frustrations.

VIDEO:
The non-anamorphic widescreen transfer is acceptable, if rough. Of course it shows the film's humble origins - grainy, some print damage. Darker scenes are extra grainy and betray additional compression artifacting.

AUDIO:
The soundtrack is fine. Early scenes are muddy but once the music gets mixed down lower the dialog (which is the bulk of the film) becomes clear.

EXTRAS:
A commentary track from writer/director Sean Baker along with producer Koorosh Yaraghi is entertaining and gives insight into their prolonged production process (the film was shot in 1996 and finally hit some festivals in 2001). They're funny and easy to listen to, sounding genuinely excited that they're laying down a commentary for their film while still honestly critiquing it.

A behind the scenes segment called "Lame" is included. It's actually a well-made look into the process of making this sort of film. Audition, location scouting and rehearsal footage are included. Like the commentary, it gives a good sense of how this little film was put together. A good primer for kids interested in how to make an indie flick.

Two other short features are available: the self-explanatory "More puke for your dollar" and "More Gary for your dollar," the latter featuring "Gary" calling the film "bullshit" and offering some helpful suggestions on how to create an action-filled car chase with no training or safety measures. A strange, funny extra. A photo gallery is also included.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Sadly, movies like Four Letter Words are a dime a dozen. Although Baker shows a pretty good ear for dialog and a willingness to keep things lively in the editing room, and despite the best efforts of a quality cast, the movie never quite inspires. A bunch of guys standing around a garage talking about porn stars or bong hits may feel important to the filmmaker and might find a cult audience but the filmmaker would be better served finding a more original outlet for his storytelling talents. Still, fans of ultra-indie films might want to give this one a shot. It's got some good qualities and some nice performances.

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