Within minutes of Gregg Araki's "Kaboom," a familiar world comes together. The man responsible for subversive American indie delights like "The Living End" and "The Doom Generation" now introduces Smith (Thomas Dekker), a shy college student majoring in film studies and toying around with bisexuality. In case that last clause made it unclear, "Kaboom" offers a welcome return to Araki's self-made universe.
Time has passed since we last paid a visit to the Araki ranks of young people poised to speak their bothered minds, but there's plenty of energy left to go around. As a director, Araki has developed a sturdier hand by directing an adaptation (the dour "Mysterious Skin") and someone else's screenplay (the stoner comedy "Smiley Face"), but "Kaboom" allows him to channel those experiences toward his original inspiration. Mixing the sexual curiosity of "Doom Generation" with the kooky style of "Smiley Face," this admittedly uneven, undeniably wild and trippy comedy-fantasy-romance-thriller has a lot going on.
Smith's life involves a host of twentysomething personalities ostensibly ripped out of an effusive Hollywood teen comedy, but each of them has a decisively naughty streak. Smith fantasizes with his hunky, moronic roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka, a dead ringer for "American Pie" prankster Stiffler) and hangs out with lesbian pal Stella (Haley Bennett). At a party, he accidentally eats a drug-laced cookie and winds up sleeping with the promiscuous London (Juno Temple), a bubbly character whose bedroom flights of fancy provide the movie with slapstick titillation.
Meanwhile, Smith falls for equally soft-spoken classmate Oliver (Brennan Mejia) and engages in an unlikely beachside affair with a buff stranger (Jason Oliver). Then there's the demented witch that Stella dates and the classmate that London coaxes into a threesome, and the strange trio of thugs wearing animal masks that chase Smith everywhere he goes - in other words, a lot going on. What Araki's busy cast lacks in dimensionality they make up in pure representational complexity. Meet the new Doom Generation.
The screenplay occasionally suffers from stilted exchanges, but Araki stuffs it with enough contemporary ingredients to justify the artifice. References to Clay Aiken, Lady Gaga and L. Ron Hubbard sound at once playfully whimsical and familiar. In the post-"Juno" era of quirk-tinged dialogue, Araki's topicality has a refreshing dimension of raunchily irreverent humor and genuine political incorrectness lost in its mainstream equivalent. ("Are you worried?" asks one character. The response: "Does Mel Gibson hate Jews?")
Despite a rocky first act, the story drifts along with a persistent dedication to fun. The freely lackadaisical plot structure eventually reaches a crescendo of pure campy delight: Everything apparently builds toward something...and ends up, in a final outrageous punchline, building toward nothing at all. Araki colors the zany developments with a pure goofball mentality, sprinkling bits of radicalism onto the now-commercial slacker paradigm of "Dude, Where's My Car?"
As Smith struggles to interpret fleeting visions of an enigmatic redhead and gradually uncovers the conspiratorial secret of his family's past, "Kaboom" wanders into several genres with varying degrees of effectiveness. But whether it strikes a note of charm or suspense, as always with Araki, the real star of the show is the sexual politics. Smith's defiance of labels (he refuses to call himself bisexual) matches the free love approach of his peers. A prolonged sex scene with London avoids the cop-out of innuendo with a frank and funny discussion that's also disarmingly innocent.
Araki's upbeat tone points to a revelation at the heart of his accomplishment. Regardless of its precedents, "Kaboom" never feels as angry as his earlier works. That's not to say he has matured into an optimist; instead, it speaks to the way he lures you in with a deceptively cheery strategy before unleashing an ideological ambush. Consider Smith's prophetic resident advisor, a stoner named The Messiah and appropriately played by "Doom Generation" lead James Duval. The same face from the 1995 movie reappears all grown up with no place to go. Araki even pays homage to his canon with a line referencing the "creeping sense of doom" haunting his entire ensemble.
The constant wit cleverly masks Ararki's final indictment. In a conclusive plot twist, he suggests the freedom to express sexual identity has less potential in today's society than its characters would like to believe. "Strange seems to be the new normal," Smith sighs. Delivering this wishful outlook, Araki appears to reflect on his own career. Thankfully, some things never change.