With "Very Bad Things," first-time writer-director Peter Berg leaves the hope to his role in "Chicago Hope" as he posits a revengers' tragedy on a clutch of angry white suburban men: angry at world, self, job, woman, they head to Vegas for a bachelor party, where all that can go wrong goes wronger and wronger.
It's cruel, but it's a loud, gaudy, painful comedy as well. Jon Favreau is about to marry Cameron Diaz, playing yet another glowing young bride (although this time America's sweetheart gets the opportunity to be consumed by a rage unbecoming a lady - or even a pit bull). His friends include the maniacally self-actualizing realtor Christian Slater, randy desk jockey Jeremy Piven, strait-laced Daniel Stern and spookily quiet mechanic Leland Orsini. There's a riot of frat-party-style indulgence until a woman is accidentally killed, and soon the liquor and cocaine and guilty sex are trumped by encounters with dead bodies and masses of unidentifiable viscera. (For a few minutes, we're transported into the Vegas Chainsaw Massacre.)
Pundits have grouped Berg's black comedy with films like "Happiness" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," suggesting that they go beyond suburban satire into a frightening, perhaps indulgent realm of white male rage. Berg admits admiration for Neil LaBute's work, and doesn't shy from the concept.
"I like the concept of white rage," Berg says. "I think it's an interesting concept that I did explore. The suffering and the problems that are going on down here in Cabrini-Green are pretty easy to see. It doesn't take a genius to see there are some problems going on down there - people are killing themselves, mothers are raising families with no husbands." Name-checking Spike Lee, John Singleton and the Hughes brothers, he says, "The films that explore the dynamic of the black urban rage and dysfunction explore that dynamic well."
Berg feels he was sheltered in his early years. "I grew up in a fairly comfortable family, I was sent to camp in the summer and went to liberal arts college. Everything seemed to be good. There was certainly enough money. Money wasn't the problem. My parents went to therapy together, tried to communicate. Everybody did what they were supposed to do."
Yet as he grew older, the world around him grew more complicated.
"What I noticed when I turned 30 was that there were people I knew whose lives had crumbled because of drug abuse, I had friends whose marriages had crumbled, I had friends who killed themselves. People whose fathers died and now the men are locked in eternal grief because they never told their father they loved them. There clearly is a type of suffering that is specific to the world I was a part of and the people I knew that certainly wasn't being represented on film." Referring to the characters in "Very Bad Things," he continues, "It's hard to generate much sympathy for a group of guys who have plenty of dough and American Express Gold Cards in their pocket, pretty girlfriends, and a couple of kids and a dog. It's hard to identify where the rage and the dysfunction is. But it seems like all these movies are aiming their guns at this subject, and it is a valid subject to make movies about."
Young writers are told to work from what they know, and certainly suffering is universal. "That's it. Suffering is universal," he says with a smile. "Life is suffering, no matter how much money you've got, no matter how many kids you've got, there's going to be an inherent amount of suffering. I wanted to have fun attacking that in my movie."
One of the small steps toward understanding the world, I venture further, is to realize that happiness is the unusual condition. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all have such unrealistic expectations of happiness. People assume they should be happy. We're striving to get to this place of contentment and I don't know it's a natural state at all." Berg recalls picking up a book of Buddhist philosophy in a hotel in Asia, which he found instead of the expected Gideon bible. "You open the book, the very first sentence is 'Life is suffering.' I don't consider myself a depressed person and I don't try and wallow in misery, that's for sure." Berg insists his movie was never a tract, however he may wax philosophical after the fact. "I came up with an idea and this is what came out of me. But my primary goal is to entertain and to provide somebody with an hour and a half of in your face, bang-for-your-buck movie entertainment. Y'know?
"Most movies today are so fucking forgettable and so preconceived and built-in laboratories in Hollywood studios by weird men wearing Armani suits and driving expensive German automobiles. The new lab coat is an Armani suit. These guys are making the movies. And nothing sticks," Berg continues. "Movies get thrown out, make $14 million the opening weekend, if there's a twenty-two percent drop the next weekend, a twenty-eight percent drop the next weekend, a fifty percent the next, they're gone and they're forgotten. I wanted to make a film that would not go quietly into that good night, that perhaps wasn't going to be forgotten by two people going to their car in Oklahoma City, just a chance to have some kind of dialogue with your basic, average twentysomething American filmgoer, just somebody who wants to go see a movie and have a good time and maybe think."