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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.