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Fifty Pills

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // Unrated // February 20, 2007
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 19, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Dweeby freshman Darren (Lou Taylor Pucci) isn't even a full semester into his college career, and he's already gotten his scholarship yanked and has resigned himself to a life of...I dunno, tobacco farming or whatever it is people do back home in North Carolina. Even after hitting up his relatives and pawning off just about every last thing he owns, Darren still owes almost a grand in tuition, and the clock's ticking until security tosses him out of his dorm room. His pill-peddling roommate Coleman (John Hensley) threw the party that got Darren the boot, and although he had to step out for the weekend, Coleman was at least thoughtful enough to leave Darren a going-away present: fifty hits of Ecstasy and a pager. At twenty bucks a pop, that's just enough to keep Darren around for the rest of the semester. This is all set up in the first couple of minutes, and Fifty Pills'd be an awfully short flick if that's all there was to it. So, yeah, before the day's out, Darren has to dump a grand's worth of mind-altering substances, feverishly bang out a paper on Dante's Inferno, fend off a pack of thugs gunning for Coleman after a shit-squirting Hammer dance, and win back his almost-a-girlfriend Gracie (Kristen Bell) who's not so keen on the whole drug dealing thing.

Grab a few sentences from that plot summary and you can pretty much picture everything that happens from there: the spineless but sweet Darren awkwardly shills X to an exclamation-point-zany bunch of oddballs, things get increasingly strained between him and Gracie until she calls the whole thing off, he learns a valuable life lesson or two, there's a climactic kiss...yeah. Fifty Pills doesn't exactly blaze forward to forge new cinematic ground, but who cares? This is a comedy. It's the funny that counts.

...and that's the thing. There are a couple of first rate dick-jokes-on-whiteboards and a few great sight gags like the reveal why Darren's mom is convinced her little boy is gay, but too much of the comedy in Fifty Pills falls flat. Sure, some of it sounds like it'd kill. American Pie's Eddie Kaye Thomas plays a trust fund kid who gets hopped up on Ecstasy and screams at length about how groundbreaking and criminally underappreciated Diff'rent Strokes is. It's a manic, hypercaffeinated performance, and I'm a sucker for jabs at nostalgia, but...just didn't get the reaction it should've. One of the other big comedic setpieces in the movie has Darren ushered down to a kindly old lady's basement where her granddaughter Petunia (Monica Keena) is dolled up as a dominatrix, smacking customers in gimp suits with her riding crop and calling them "beetches" in some quasi-Bavarian accent. If "beetches" doesn't get a laugh (and it doesn't), you're saddled with several minutes of comedic dead air. Sometimes there'd be a line or two I'd smirk at, but I kinda had that reaction to more scenes than not.

Fifty Pills leans too heavily on post-1997 National Lampoon college comedy-grade wackiness and out of left field dialogue spouted off by Darren's nutjob clients. Y'know, the sort of thing where the dialogue itself isn't inherently funny, but it tries to get a laugh by having someone say something unexpected: Grandma speaking calmly and unconcerned about sweet Petunia popping X, some half-Japanese girl quipping about fucking Darren with a strap-on... Blah. Even clocking in under 80 minutes minus credits, it's kinda bogged down with filler. A subplot with Coleman avoiding telling his long-time girlfriend that he loves her eventually has a point, but the movie doesn't do much of anything with it. A gang of thugs headed by Michael Peña would've left more of an impact if they didn't unrelentingly keep saying the same two or three things over and over again, and several scenes really don't push the plot forward and don't seem to make any attempt to get a laugh.

There's a lot to appreciate about Fifty Pills. Great soundtrack. Strong photography with a distinctively New York setting without resorting to any the usual Big Apple clichés. An instantly likeable ensemble cast, and I can never pass up an opportunity to fawn over how wonderful and talented Kristen Bell is. Its heart's in the right place, and I can honestly say I've never seen a lead character more eerily similar to me than Darren, but...there just aren't nearly enough laughs, and I can't recommend a comedy if I don't think it's funny.

Video: Fifty Pills opens with an extreme close-up so crisp and so detailed that it would've been easy to mistake for high-definition. What's left of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is a little more 16mm-indie-ish -- slightly soft and on the grainy side -- but for the most part, Fifty Pills turned out pretty well on DVD. The reason I wrote "for the most part": the first scene with Monica Keena's faux-Eastern bloc dominatrix has an unusually aliased, low-res look to it, particularly around the edges of clothing. It's jarring enough that I'm kinda surprised the DVD made it past any sort of QA check, but I didn't really spot anything quite like that elsewhere in the movie. Those authoring hiccups ding the overall score down a bit, but that aside, Fifty Pills looks pretty good.

Audio: The monaural Dolby Digital audio (192Kbps) falls out of sync a couple times early on but is otherwise solid. The bouncy indie rock soundtrack is reasonably punchy even if it doesn't rattle the windows, and the dialogue's clean and clear. No dubs or subs, although the DVD is closed captioned.

Extras: The meatiest extra on this DVD is an audio commentary with director Theo Avgerinos, writer Matthew Perniciaro, director of photography Harris Charalambous, and producers Jake Demaray and Kevin Mann. As you could probably guess from having that many people in the booth at once, this is a really comprehensive track, tackling everything from assembling the cast, filming on both coasts (including the boiler room from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street), where the core of the story came from, the amount of improvisation in the movie, and how to stretch a very modest $300,000 budget. A very good commentary and one that makes me feel kinda guilty for not being more enthusiastic about their movie.

Looks like most of what was on the page made it into the final cut. Aside from a bit with Darren getting a quarter's worth of advice from a homeless guy, the eight minute reel of deleted and extended scenes is almost entirely brief snippets of dialogue, with some improvised back and forth between Jane Lynch and John Kapelos standing out more than anything else. A six minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage and the movie's premiere at the Tribeca film fest is also included.

Fifty Pills sports fifteen chapter stops and a set of 16x9 animated menus, and the disc comes packaged in a standard Amaray keepcase with no insert.

That Final Summary Thing: I guess enough armchair movie critics out there dug Fifty Pills for the DVD case to be plastered with blurbs, but it struck me as too ordinary and not nearly funny enough to recommend shelling out twenty bucks for this DVD sight unseen. Give it a rental first. Rent It.
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