Moving Pictures
Jul 28, 2023, 06:29AM

Unicorn Cinema: Gossip

This would be much more offensive if it weren’t so stupid.

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Broadly speaking, representation on film usually depends on a selective disregard for standards of verisimilitude. A film set in prison might ignore certain realities of prison security to enable its characters to escape. For greater diversity in casting, a period piece might assemble a racially and ethnically mixed cast despite the cultural homogeneity of its setting. The same period piece might take anachronistic liberties with its costume choices for practical (money) or aesthetic (it looks cooler) purposes. A tacit agreement takes place between a filmmaker and the audience: the audience won’t nitpick, but in turn, the filmmaker won’t demand too much suspension of disbelief, which risks breaking the spell and taking the audience out of the film.

Some movies continually break this agreement in an act of comedic hyperbole (Airplane, Naked Gun). Some movies break it as a means of Brechtian distancing (Dogville, most Godard), some for more curious artistic reasons (the resurrection in L’ordet, the frogs in Magnolia). Then there are the movies that just say fuck it. The ones that troll the audience, stacking implausibility on top of implausibility until they take the collective shape of a unicorn. Movies like Gossip, a relatively obscure thriller from the spring of 2000 whose total incongruity with anything resembling the real world or the people who inhabit it builds to a hysterical pitch over 90 insane minutes. Gossip is difficult to defend on any kind of artistic grounds, let alone moral or political, but when I settle down from an exhausting day with the sole desire to watch something really fucking stupid, Gossip is exactly the kind of movie I have in mind.

Three attendees of an unnamed NYC college live together in an extravagant loft: womanizing rich kid Derrek (James Marsden), whose father pays the rent; sensitive artist Travis (Norman Reedus); and Jones (Lena Heady), who shares a mutual, unconsummated attraction with Derrek. When they’re not drinking martinis, the roommates take a Communications course taught by Professor Goodwin (Eric Bogosian) in which he lectures the class on the topic of News vs. Gossip, inviting the students to partake in the discourse (and making a creepy comment on a black student’s hair). Derrek declares there’s no difference between news and gossip, adding that he enjoys gossip because it’s fun—a subtle tip to the viewer that Derrek will be the villain in this story. Gossip does the thing that a lot of college movies do where, for purposes of exposition and plot, they pretend that lecture classes are more interactive than they are in real life. (It was even shot at the same university as Urban Legends and The Skulls, all of which feature Joshua Jackson.) This feels like an acceptable implausibility, like casting 30-year-olds as college students.

Things get messy once they get to the big party in the meat-packing district, where rich girl Naomi (pre-stardom Kate Hudson) and her boyfriend Beau (Dawson’s Creek-era Jackson) arrive by town car. The fanciness of her transportation doesn’t go unnoticed, and gossip spreads around the party that Naomi’s a virgin. While tending to a spewing co-ed in an upstairs bathroom, Derrek sees Naomi hooking up with Beau in the bedroom. She tells Beau to stop, but we don’t see if he does or not. On their way home from the party, Derrek relays what he saw to Jones and Travis. He tells them that Beau and Naomi didn’t have sex, but as a social experiment, he proposes starting the rumor that they did, tracking it as it passes from person to person and seeing how it evolves.

Never mind that contact tracing a rumor in a setting as large as a college is virtually impossible for three people to accomplish. The idea that any college-aged person would care enough about a fellow student losing her virginity to spread it around as some sort of prurient gossip is ridiculous. This is high school gossip, and not especially scandalous even for high school. At first, Gossip seems like it was possibly developed from an earlier draft of a high school movie script, were it not for later plot developments that more or less preclude this possibility.

The rumor gets nastier as it spreads, culminating in rape accusations against Beau. Naomi blacked out during the encounter, and despite Beau’s pleas of innocence, she comes to believe that he raped her at the party. For some reason, this all turns into fodder for Professor Goodwin’s course, which he videotapes and displays live on a giant screen for seemingly no other reason than to say, “Like everything else in America today, this revolution will be televised.” A female student says that ever since women got the right to vote, men have had to deal with the uncomfortable reality of female autonomy. Perhaps as an homage to a classic Mr. Show joke (“then Abraham Lincoln—a white man—set them free”), Goodwin responds, “So who gave ‘em the right to vote anyway?” It’s fun to imagine how quickly this guy would get fired if he were teaching today.

After Beau’s arrested for rape—maybe the biggest implausibility in a movie full of them, given what we know about how colleges handle sexual assault—a conflicted Jones visits Naomi in her dorm to ask if she’s sure Beau raped her. When she mentions Derrek in passing, Naomi becomes visibly angry and distraught, telling her to leave. Derrek claims to have no idea why Naomi would freak out like that; he offers the conceited explanation that “people tend to remember” him and he doesn’t always reciprocate. After finally sleeping with Derrek in spite of her suspicions, Jones travels to Naomi’s hometown to investigate, discovering pictures of Naomi and Derrek together at prom in an old yearbook. An office admin tells Jones that Naomi accused Derrek of rape, which caused a massive scandal in their small town.

Meanwhile, during all of this, Travis has been constructing a giant art installation in their loft about gossip. It includes photographs of Naomi, taken surreptitiously, one of which gets blown up to a massive scale and then torn in half. A giant handgun points at her, shooting bullets in her direction—a most tasteful way to portray an alleged rape victim—each bullet labeled “WORDS.” Get it? Gossip is like a gun, and words are the bullets. It’s never totally clear how Travis plans to earn credit for this. “What are you going to do, turn in your room?” Derrek asks him.

If none of this makes any sense to you, you’re not alone. The writers keep ratcheting up the action, and before it’s over, we see Derrek fight Beau, Derek fight Naomi, two faked deaths, a rape confession duped out of Derrek, and Naomi’s driver (Edward James Olmos) impersonating a homicide detective as part of an elaborate ruse (hope he got a good tip). After the final twist, the characters all emerge from different parts of the loft, unloading pages of exposition in a ham-fisted attempt to tie loose ends and patch about a dozen different plot holes.

Despite the Lib bona fides of director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), the movie’s sexual politics are fairly conservative. Rape exists in the world of Gossip, yet rape accusations can’t always be trusted. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, universities are depicted as overly punitive in their handling of rape accusations. Female solidarity is consistently undermined by competitiveness, jealousy, and a desire for acceptance from the opposite sex. In the film’s early montage of the gossip chain, the act of gossiping is almost exclusively female-coded, even though the rumor is a man’s idea. This would all be much more offensive if it weren’t so stupid. It’s pointless to muster any outrage over something this bereft of substance. Given its heavy-footed misogynist-wolf-in-feminist-sheepskin slant, Gossip is like one of the Hudson University episodes of Law and Order: SVU without any of the detectives, functioning as a kind of Wolf Entertainment try-out for screenwriter and eventual Law and Order: Criminal Intent writer/producer Theresa Rebeck. I haven’t been shy about my distaste for some of Rebeck’s work as a playwright, but movies and TV might play more to her creative strengths, or at least offer a context in which her dialogue comes off as more laughable than groan-inducing.

And that’s why you watch something like Gossip: for a laugh. When a movie breaks that tacit agreement with its audience and does away with common standards of verisimilitude, it often takes the audience out of the movie. But if the movie takes enough big swings, if it really commits to every unbelievable or unconvincing aspect of its existence, it can sometimes skate by on the unpredictability and sublime stupidity of its missteps alone. It reminds me of something New Yorker critic Anthony Lane wrote about another stupid movie: “Sometimes ten per cent of your brain is just enough.”


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