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200 Cigarettes

Misery and the 80’s

By Francisco Delatorre

1999, 1 hr 39 min.

Written by Shana Larsen

Directed by Risa Bramon Garcia

With Ben Affleck, Courtney Love, Kate Hudson, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci, and Paul Rudd

As a general rule, I have rarely liked films in which everyone is miserable, depressed, or suffering. In addition, I’m not the biggest fan of recent period piece flicks (documenting, say, the 70’s or the 80’s). I mean, how poignant can a real-life representation of the 80’s be? It’s only a decade ago! For example, I did not like Boogie Nights, despite its merits; it threw a bunch of suffering porn stars at us and did so not only in the 70’s, but in the 80’s as well. Thus, a film like 200 Cigarettes, which documents the New Year’s Eve of 1981 and the painful situations that it imposes on a wide array of characters and couples, should have driven me up the wall. And yet I liked it. Despite its petty, superficial, and occasionally annoying character, I think I enjoyed it, and I think I enjoyed it because it strayed from the conventions of both period pieces and character suffering.

First, I got the impression that the director simply wanted to make a movie that nostalgically referenced the 80’s. Whereas most films that depict other time periods take heavily into account the impact the period has on the characters, this story could have taken place any New Year’s Eve; the problems each character goes through, and the situations they get themselves into and whine their way out of are not bounded by any necessary time period, and it seems as though the director simply wanted to put plush interior and a rear view mirror disco ball into the cab. She wanted Martha Plimpton to wear that tacky dress. It is clear that not a great deal of effort was made into creating a convincing time setting, because there are many mistakes made that, with a slight bit of common sense, could have been avoided. For one, there are the petty, unimportant transgressions that result in my wanting to strangle whoever points them out as weaknesses such as, say, the fact that a 1996 Mercury drives -- past the cab in the background, or the suggestion that if you’ve seen one goth punk, you’ve seen them all. Clearly, it was a mistake on the part of the creators to choose New Year’s 1981 as a time setting, since the majority of the songs and trends featured in the film significantly post-date that year in the 80’s. These indicate that this is not a movie about the 80’s, it is simply a movie that features some impressive 80’s decor. Indeed, this film makes great use of color and setting, without being forced to adhere to a period piece convention.

I’m rather ambivalent toward the narrative composition of the film, however. It surrounds the last few hours of 1981 for a wide group of people, each of which are on their way to a party. They all fight their own personal demons throughout the evening, complaining and kvetching about life and love as they make their way to their common destination. Even the woman throwing the party goes through a deconstruction of her whole life, as no one arrives until much later. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really go anywhere for the first 80 minutes, and I have a problem with that. It wanders aimlessly throughout the tortured lives of these tortured twenty-somethings without really knowing where it is going or what it is saying. It isn’t until the last 15 minutes that the film finally starts to exhibit some sort of direction, and things get more exciting.

On the other hand, although everyone suffers throughout the film until the very end, everyone suffers in a funny way. The petty complaints, the pointless bickering, Ben Affleck playing the cute/dorky/self-absorbed character he plays so well, all contributed to the film’s sense of humor. Indeed, the movie did manage to keep me, and the rest of the audience, laughing. I attribute some of this to the fact that the visual style of the film (the pseudo-80’s sets, costumes, and colors) changes our perception of the characters and their suffering. Somehow, they seem less real (because the visuals and soundtrack are not true to the time setting) and thus it is easier to laugh at their misfortune. This works up to a point, however, and the creators knew when to call it quits, running at less than 100 minutes. This is good, because had the aimless, humorous torture the characters were undergoing continued for any longer, it would quickly have lost its appeal and become a very depressing movie (in fact, I was already beginning to tire of the less well constructed situations).

The ending was simultaneously entertaining and disappointing. Entertaining in that once the characters finally come to terms with their own individual neuroses, the director throws at us a unique denouement that is both humorous and uplifting. It was disappointing, however, in two ways. First, the ending dialogue gives us a rather disappointing, cliche, and ultimately unremarkable message, calling for greater sincerity and an end to personal barriers. Second, the epilogue (entertaining though it may have been) in a way condescends to its audience, filling in the blanks between when everyone arrived at the party and the morning after, when the events that transpired are relatively easy to determine.

Overall, the film had its significant weaknesses, although I still liked it. Since its 80’s feel was not really rooted to 80’s reality, the fabricated style of the film made the characters’ suffering a point of humor rather than depression. Despite its less than stellar concept, the implementation did have its high points. Definitely worth the matinee price I paid.