The following is a reprint of our review from TIFF.
Sophomoric, silly and pretty much a high-concept sitcom in origin, production value and tone, Gregg Araki‘s candy-coated “Kaboom” is ridiculous, ultra-camp and likely only appeals to his small band of constituents (and the seal-trained TIFF audiences that will laugh at anything), but the wacky picture admittedly does contain a few silly delights.
Kicking off with a strange, clue-laden dream, the absurd rom-com/murder mystery stars Thomas Dekker as Smith, a bisexual Californian college student about to go down a rabbit hole of cults, conspiracies and general weirdness. His best friend is the ginger-haired lesbian Stella (relative newcomer Haley Bennett) who is his partner in crime and a clever, quippy foil (the rest of the cast are largely unknowns as well).
Smith’s haunting dream contains two female figures who enter the plot later on, a mysterious red-head (Nicole LaLiberte) and Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), a dark-haired girl who later turns out to be a crazy lesbian witch who becomes obsessed with Stella and stalks her with her powers (no, really).
College life is typical for an Araki film, lots of gay sex, straight sex, three-ways, ecstasy-induced hook-ups, and campus parties. Smith fantasises about his dumb-as-rocks surfer roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), and life is what you imagine for a promiscuous college kid, but things turn strange when people from his dream start turning up in real life at a party. Lorelei becomes Stella’s needy girlfriend and after a drug-filled session with a random girl named London (Juno Temple, who is easily the best part of the sometimes barely tolerable movie), Smith wanders around campus, coming across the screaming and panicked red-head being chased by shadowy figures in creepy animal masks. Frantic, she gives Smith a disc of information and then is murdered in front of his eyes. The young student is knocked unconscious and we fade to black.
In the morning back in his room, he thinks it was all a euphoria-induced crazy dream and goes back to his business of scoping out guys and enjoying very casual sex with his new hookup friend London. To cut to the chase, the student soon finds out the girl’s murder was actually real and he and his friends are further freaked out when they discover the body’s been stolen from the local morgue.
What ensues afterwards is a twisty and winding plot of intrigue, murder, sex, and a shadowy worldwide conspiracy that includes a massive secret cult and Smith at the epicenter as the chosen one who everyone is after.
In some ways the ludicrous and convoluted plotline is ambitious and amusing — advanced irony graduates will likely adore its silly absurdisms — and in other ways it deserves a TV-like laugh track it is so pedestrian and eye-roll provoking. The filmmaker plays it broad, and while there a few laughs, “Kaboom,” is so half-witted, it’s hard not to wince and groan occasionally (Araki regular and Keanu Reeves-like horrible actor James Duval shows up too and his stoner “Messiah” character for example is just painfully unfunny; Kelly Lynch also co-stars). The only reason “Kaboom” can’t be labeled an all-out disaster is that it’s so peculiar and so outlandish there are admittedly a few moments worth relishing and chuckling over.
Araki’s preoccupation with incessant sex is still in evidence and the way he fetishizes the male form would be considered incredibly sexist if he was a straight male shooting females. Production values are so poor they’re distracting and the decision to use 1990s-like toaster effect transitions is just dumb (so bad it’s good? Har har!). The filmmaker still has the best soundtracks in the business — shoegazery tracks by Interpol, Jesus & Mary Chain and other usual suspects, plus a score written by the Cocteau Twins‘ Robin Guthrie and performed by musicians like Ulrich Schnauss — but ultimately it means very little and the music never remotely elevates the mediocre material (and at this point, it’s incredibly predictable; we love Slowdive too, but dude, it’s time to move on already and find a new thing).
Araki made a solid film before, “Mysterious Skin” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and that was the first time we took him seriously, but perhaps it was a fluke never to be repeated. All we know is after 20 years of angsty, Gen-X films directed with the subtlety and nuance of John Waters, Araki apparently still has yet to mature and or say things of much substance. John Cameron Mitchell has graduated already from making films about guys sucking each other off (see the excellent “Rabbit Hole“), so maybe Araki should try the same. Lord knows after 20 years, the wild, Queer-core camp teen thing is getting really old.
While superficially the film feels like a David Lynch picture in college, it’s more like “Saved By The Bell” aesthetics and sense of humor meets that bizarro world version of “Twin Peaks” and “Lost Highway,” minus the masterclass director’s visionary nightmarish and dreamlike tenors. [C-]