Directed by Gregg Araki. Starring Kathleen Robertson, Johnathan Schaech, Matt Keeslar, Eric Mabius, Kelly MacDonald, Dan Gatto, Linda Kim, Audrey Ruttan. (1999, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 19, 1999
A kinder, gentler Gregg Araki film? Surely this signifies that the seventh seal has finally been broken and chaos (in the form of giant, ant-headed alien fundamentalists) is just around the corner. Or perhaps the bad boy of new queer cinema is finally growing up a bit. Either way, Splendor marks a bellwether change in the way Araki presents his vision to the world at large. Mostly gone are the stridently juvenile (and hilarious) ripostes of his L.A. trilogy (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere), along with the shocking surrealist violence and bare-breasted Rose McGowan and sexily androgynous James Duval. In fact, almost every aspect of Araki's previous work is missing from Splendor, with the very important exception of that one thing that has always made this filmmaker/agent provocateur so very interesting: his unceasing romanticism. It's no secret that beneath Araki's druggy, hedonistic exterior beats the heart of a true-blue romantic. His films have always been a bit like Baudelaire doing Shelley over at Al Jourgensen's pad, a fact which ropes in not only those enamored of his more provocative queer and bisexual thematics, but also those of us who just like a gooey good love story (or at the very least an interesting one). Splendor's dirty little secret? It's sweet. In fact, if this movie were any more charming, you'd have to mop the treacle from the floor after each and every screening. That's not to say it's cloying; plenty of Araki's trademark sass and naughty invective is still being hurled about. Splendor plays more like a Preston Sturges comedy than one of Araki's own, though, a fact the director has noted by deliberately referencing any number of screwball comedies from the Thirties and Forties. Robertson (Beverly Hills 90210) plays Veronica, an L.A. twentysomething who falls for two stunningly different guys in the same night. Abel (Scaech) is a struggling freelance music critic with a heart of gold and a vocabulary built for wooing. Zed (Keeslar) is a punk rock drummer with abs of steel and perky pecs aplenty. Both men are equally smitten with Veronica, though, predictably, they can't stand each other. Things come to a head one night when the testosterone collides outside of a hillside mushroom party, and, fists unfurled, the two go at it until Veronica eventually offers the option of all three moving in together. Suddenly it's Jules and Jim all over again. Araki has always had a knack for casting talented semi-unknowns who can dig deep to nail the emotionally volatile, intellectual bitchslaps that the director specializes in, and Splendor is no exception. There's a genuine, sparky chemistry between the three (and later, a fourth), and Robertson, particularly, is luminous in her role. The whole project, indeed, is shot through with a giddy, love-puppy sensibility that's wholly unexpected from Araki. No misplaced jism, no beheadings, no penile defenestrations -- Araki's appears to have traded in his black-clad pop sensibility for a lighter shade of love, and endearingly, it fits.