Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell) discovers the body of his best friend, Troy, and doesn’t bother telling any of the parents in his postcard-perfect California neighborhood. He knows that these families prefer to go about their lives by ignoring reality entirely. But when this scandal hits home, will they take notice, or will they continue along their merry, self-medicated way?
Starring Glenn Close (The Stepford Wives), Ralph Fiennes, (The Constant Gardener), Rita Wilson (Runaway Bride), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), and Justin Chatwin (War Of The Worlds, The Chumscrubber brings together an all-star cast and is being hailed as “darkly comic, it’s got a great cast of familiar faces and the best of the best of tomorrow’s talent.” (Quint, aintitcoolnews.com)
The Chumscrubber 7.5
eyelights: Glenn Close. its satirical take on modern suburban life.
eyesores: its deep, dark cynicism.
“I just thought you should know that, in no way whatsoever, do I blame you for Troy’s death.”
‘The Chumscrubber’ is a black comedy about the repercussions felt in a pill-popping suburban nightmare after Troy, the community’s “connection”, is found hanging in his room by his best friend, Dean. It follows Dean as he attempts to outmaneuver the bullies trying to take over Troy’s business and outwit his navel-gazing parents and neighbours.
Before we continue, let me answer the question that is likely on your lips: What the !@#$ is a “chumscrubber”?
The Chumscrubber is the hero of a post-apocalyptic video game. The young man, who looks a lot like Troy (the two overlap at times during the movie), survived a nuclear holocaust and walks around with his head in his hand, fighting “freaks and subhuman creatures”. Clearly, this is supposed to be a metaphor for the landscape Dean currently find himself in.
‘The Chumscrubber’ is a satire of North American suburban reality: almost everyone is well-to-do (and those who comparatively aren’t, are by conventional standards), all the kids are self-medicating, all the adults are self-obsessed, everyone is relentlessly pursuing their own agenda, no one is listening to each other, but they’re all quite keen to spew platitudes to one another.
They’re all pretending to be happy, based on some conventional notion of happiness.
The picture is entertaining and incisive, but it is particularly cynical, often desperately bleak. Frankly, watching it made me want to retreat from society, feeling as though it is irrevocably polluted. Having seen these types of people many times over in my own town, I couldn’t help but think that the problem was deeper than I’d ever imagined it to be. I didn’t want any part of it.
What it does is tap into the darkness of ‘Donnie Darko‘ while leaving the wonder behind. Whereas ‘Darko’ at least had a fantastical quality to it, ‘Chumscrubber’ shows hardly any signs of such imagination, substituting it with the video game in its stead. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a cynical attempt to connect with youth audiences or to do some sort of cross-promotion.
Actually, I found ‘The Chumscrubber’ self-consciously cultish, as though the filmmakers were purposely trying to recreate the kind of atmosphere that the ‘Donnie Darko’ and ‘Heathers’ of the world manifested to gain a following. This bothered me because the best cult films never intended to be that; they’re usually the expression of an unusual vision, not of posturing.
To me, it looked like the filmmakers made their movie with a clipboard:
- Emotionally-disturbed protagonist on the verge of a mental breakdown? Check!
- Out of touch adults? Check!
- Quiet town with a secret dark side? Check!
- Alienation, isolation and loneliness? Check!
- Inexplicable fantasy character that looks peculiar? Check!
- Atmospheric soundtrack with a few cool bands to add to its street cred? Check!
Right! We gots us a movie!
Thankfully, the cast bolsters the material in a grand way: Jamie Bell is perfect as the sullen, pill-popping Dean; William Fichtner is eager and misdirected as his therapist dad, Ralph Fiennes is stellar as the slightly dazed mayor, Rita Wilson is intense and nervous as his workaholic fiancé, and Carrie-Anne Moss is delicious as a lascivious and catty single mom. The whole cast is terrific, really.
But the most outstanding of them all has got to be Glenn Close, who plays Troy’s all-too-cheerful mom. Clearly suffering from some form of PTSD, Ms. Johnson makes a point of telling all the adults she meets that she doesn’t blame them for her son’s death. She even makes calls specifically to relate this message (and isn’t afraid to leave messages with their kids).
Close takes her right to the edge, fragmenting, but not quite breaking apart. When she politely asks her neighbour to leave parking space on the street, we are conscious that she is screaming inside. And by the time her son’s memorial competes with a wedding across the street, we can’t help but be sympathetic to her pain: she is wracked with guilt for not listening, for not being there.
‘The Chumscrubber’ goes through 90 minutes of angst and conflict before allowing us to feel any sympathy, however: Dean is stuck trying to unravel a kidnapping plot he has been dragged into, while every single adult is battling with their own inner demons. By the time that Dean has a heart-to-heart with Troy’s mom, we are thirsty for any sign of human kindness.
Because, if there is any message at all in ‘The Chumscrubber’, it’s that our values are ill-placed and our society is diseased, that we are so deeply focused on ourselves that we’ve become disconnected from those around us – and, in so doing, have lost all meaning and value in our lives. We are unhappy and unfulfilled, but keep ourselves distracted and medicated to numb the pain.
And that we, the audience, should laugh at this. Knowingly. Bitterly. The picture doesn’t offer any hope or any suggestions: all it does is put a spotlight on our ills and emphasize them into near-caricature. Does it serve as a warning? Does it intend to shake us out of our stupor so that we may realize the trouble we’re in? Or is it just scornfully venting its frustrations?
Well, maybe the Chumscrubber does…
Post scriptum: I know that my assessment may seem harsh. I must reiterate that I was entertained by ‘The Chumscrubber’ and laughed a fair bit. But I’m a cynic, and I don’t know that everyone would get the humour in it. Had it been the first of its kind, I might have rated it more highly; it is, by all counts, a solid picture. However, since it feels rather derivative, one should adjust expectations accordingly.
Date of viewing: July 5, 2014