As much fun as they may be to make, and as interesting as the assembled talent often is, multi-story and -character ensemble films have a built-in problem: all the stories and characters never hold the same amount of interest. While Robert Altman has shown that it is possible to come up with a consistently engaging pastiche of narrative threads, more often than not similar efforts by others come out wildly uneven. Such is the case with Risa Bramon Garcia's somewhat amusing but underachieving 200 Cigarettes.
Within the loose narrative framework of people finding their way to one big Big Apple bash on the Eve of 1982, Garcia and screenwriter Shana Larsen, both first-timers, do come up with one completely successful plot thread: that of platonic friends/roommates Kevin (Paul Rudd) and Lucy (Courtney Love). Kevin is depressed over his recent breakup with performance artist girlfriend Ellie (Janeane Garofalo, as hilariously acerbic as ever) and the fact that it's also his birthday, and Lucy wants to cheer him up and make him forget about Ellie--in any way she can. Right off the bat one can see where this storyline will lead, but the terrific pairing of Rudd and Love makes it never less than involving. Love is particularly impressive, displaying a warmth and vulnerability that is as delightful as it is surprising; her performance here--in tandem with her breakthrough work in The People vs. Larry Flynt--reveals Love to be the real thing, actingwise.
Unfortunately for Garcia and Larsen--and even worse for us--there is one huge dud of a storyline involving two Long Island teens, Val (Christina Ricci) and Stephie (Gaby Hoffmann), who get lost on the mean streets of the East Village. Along the way, they hook up with a couple of punk rockers, Tom (Casey Affleck) and Dave (Guillermo Diaz). It's always nice to see Ricci onscreen, but her talents are wasted in this story, which is an absolute waste of time--it's not funny; there is no payoff whatsoever; and only two of the characters play notable roles in Garcia and Larsen's grand scheme. Making this thread even more unbearable is a truly grating performance by Hoffmann, who is actually given more to do than Ricci.
The other stories in the hodgepodge that is 200 Cigarettes are varying degrees of just-passable, with some of the actors turning in standout character work. Dave Chappelle is amusing as a slick cabbie who taxis many of the characters around town. Ben Affleck is a hoot as an incredibly square bartender who catches the attention of many a patron, most notably starving artist friends Caitlyn (Angela Featherstone) and Bridget (Nicole Parker). Martha Plimpton is nicely neurotic as the big party's harried hostess, but she's saddled with a tedious thread revolving around her ex's (Brian McCardie) sexual inadequacy. But the one person, other than Love, who makes the strongest impression is newcomer Kate Hudson, who plays the purehearted Cindy, who spends her New Year's Eve with Jack (Jay Mohr), whom she doesn't know is quite the ladies' man. Hudson is effortlessly likable and charming, but Garcia and Larsen too often have her engage in cheap pratfalls and other acts of clumsiness.
"Clumsy" can also describe the way Larsen chooses to close out the film, with a hamfisted monologue about how people "hide" behind cigarettes--as if she were somehow required to explain her title (as if the virtually non-stop lighting and puffing weren't explanation enough). Yet as heavy-handed as that touch and statement is, it also pretty much sums up 200 Cigarettes: what's good about it is hidden behind the smoke of mediocrity.
RATING: *** (out of *****)
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