Fifteen years after Larry Clark’s controversial feature, the Kids still aren’t all right: In Twelve, Joel Schumacher’s disjointed sinkhole of a movie, New York City youth are still just as into fucking and drugging as they were back in 1995, even as the Falling Down director has traded Clark’s less privileged bunch for their Upper East Side prep-school counterparts. When the earlier movie screened to endless buzz touting its alleged “importance,” critic Jonathan Rosenbaum took a New York Times reviewer’s characterization of the film as “a wakeup call to the world” as an occasion to sardonically note that both the press and the film’s publicists were “drawing a firm line in the sand and declaring that rice paddy workers everywhere…lay down their hoes and stop evading the problems of white Manhattan teenagers.”
The travails of a similar set of teenagers are very much on display in Schumacher’s film, and while Twelve doesn’t indulge in quite the same level of self-absorption—a giddy voyeurism coupled with a cautionary moral—as Clark’s movie, it does offer worried mothers and fathers some useful parenting lessons. For example: Pay more attention to your kids, or else your petite white virgin of a daughter will end up offering up her hymen to a hulking black man in exchange for drugs, which actually happens in a scene whose utter vileness consists of its absolute willingness to play on white racial fears of black sexuality. And all because the poor girl’s mother treats her coldly and tells her she won’t get into Wesleyan if she continues to get Bs on her report card. Ah, the difficulties of being young, rich, smart, and beautiful.
If superficiality is the central danger facing any filmmaker shooting a movie about the privileged classes, then it’s a problem that Schumacher and screenwriter Jordan Melamed (adapting Nick McDonnell’s bestseller of the same title) at least seem aware of. How to complicate that superficiality, on the other hand, proves quite beyond their understanding. Simply acknowledging the fact of their characters’ lack of depth (as when the most superficial of the film’s young women admits, “I’m a shallow, narcissistic bitch,” before continuing to act like a shallow, narcissistic bitch even as—spoiler!—she lays dying at the film’s end) doesn’t work, nor does taking a semi-satirical approach to some of the supporting players’ utterances and actions. I guess hearing a trio of trendy girls deliver “the rules” (“Chicks must cum before dicks,” “The Hamptons rock”) or a rich kid lying in a hospital bed declare “Dad’s so pissed I totaled the Porsche” allows us to laugh at these jokers, but a later sequence in which an inventory of the contents of a character’s pocket (which include, in the narrator’s words, a “naked picture of a girlfriend he fingered while watching the Blue Man Group” and a cellphone that says “Pussy Monger”) invites male identification, a complicity in the behaviors the film is presumptively trying to condemn.
The truth is that the movie’s attitude toward much of its material seems more than a little confused. Attempting to navigate around the obvious superficiality of the culture their film depicts, Schumacher and Melamed focus on several characters who are, to one degree or another, outsiders to that culture, and thus offer the possibility of a different perspective on the action, if not a way out. But in the filmmakers’s restless rush to move from one set of characters to another (and there are at least half a dozen too many in the movie), the principal figures wind up proving no less superficial than their more peripheral counterparts.
Chief among these characters is the truest outsider, White Mike (Chace Crawford), a young drug dealer who comes from a more modest family than the others and who neither drinks nor takes drugs. Mike’s story is a monstrosity of reductive psychology: Haunted by the death of his mother, he looks for salvation in a potential romance with a childhood friend who reminds him of his dead parent, later finding redemption in less likely company. Almost all of this exposition is communicated through voiceover composed of trendily minimalist prose presumably taken from McDonnell’s novel (the narration runs throughout the entire movie in a vain attempt to tie a fuckload of loose strands together) and through endless flashbacks and fantasies often set against an abstract white background (this last item serving as an unintentionally neat metaphor for Schumacher’s visual imagination, which also includes such standbys as drug experience = blurry, trailing cinematography).
Mike is at the center of most of the film’s narrative strands, which also include the slaying of his dope-addled cousin, the plight of a rich, white friend who’s accused of the murder when it was really done by—of course!—a black thug, and the aforementioned deflowering of the nice young girl. It all comes to a head in one of the most ridiculously overheated sequences in recent memory, a woozy mess which attempts to pack two near-simultaneous revelations, a healthy dose of fucking, and a crazed murderous rampage into an otherwise ordinary (town)house party. That the scene is not half as riotous as it’s clearly intended to be just serves as further proof that the film doesn’t even work on a simple voyeuristic level, let alone on the satirical or cautionary plane to which it occasionally seems to aspire. The characters in Twelve (and the direction and the writing) finally aren’t interesting enough to warrant our attention. Sometimes to be superficial is just to be boring.