Party Monster, released in 2003, is for the most part a cinematic adaptation of James St. James
' memoir Disco Bloodbath
. As such, it is something of a history of the '80s/'90s New York
"club kid" subculture, focusing on the pivotal role and intimate life of scene figure Michael Alig
, who went from being a nobody to essentially ruling the scene of bizarre costumes, amorphous sexuality, and omnipresent drugs, before collapsing amidst drug-fueled excess and a bizarre did-he-or-didn't-he murder scandal. Alig's life would seem to be begging for a theatrical treatment, and writer/directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who were connected to Alig's circle back in the day and released a 1998 documentary on the subject (confusingly given the same title, and beyond the scope of this writeup) would seem to be perfectly positioned to make it. This movie, however, unfortunately never seems to live up to all the potential it was born with. If not a masterpiece, though, this film does manage to at least acquit itself honorably.
Macaulay Culkin finally returns to the screen as Alig, shy small-town boi cum Manhattan hanger-on cum darling party promoter extraordinaire cum unfulfilled drug addict and murderer. He just wanted to be loved, you see. Culkin displays barely any range or emotion, but one suspects that might be precisely the point, and if you can get past the godawful accent his skillful use of body language makes the earnest pretty boy role play out. Seth Green co-stars in a somewhat uneven turn as St. James himself, coming through as wonderfully queeny at his best but utterly failing to exhibit any sort of chemistry with Culkin. This isn't the kind of role he need be ashamed to have on his filmography, but don't expect it to show up in parentheses on future DVD cases.
Moving below top billing, Dylan McDermott turns in a very sympathetic portrayal of cyclopean club magnate and, as the directors would have it, substitute father figure Peter Gatien. Wilson Cruz (Rickie from My So-Called Life) plays wannabe, drug dealer, and ultimately murder victim Angel Melendez as something that reminded me of a shy version of Harold Perrineau's Romeo + Juliet Mercutio. Chloë Sevigny is wasted in a well-delivered but pointless performance as Gitsie, who Alig draws into his inner circle for no apparent purpose, and Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show's "Fez") is adequate in the role of everyone's favorite superstar DJ, Keoki. Rounding out the cast, Diana Scarwid drifts through the narrative as Alig's mother, John Stamos makes an appearance as a talk show host most notable for being John Stamos, and Marilyn Manson uses his stage presence to good effect in a brief bit as a run-down drag queen.
That dispensed with, I must admit that it's a tough matter to pass judgement on Party Monster as a film. For one thing, the movie is unmistakeably shot through with awful. The performances are painfully overdone at points, the editing and visual composition reek of Siamese Dream-era MTV, the writing is... well, let's say the writing is lucky to have actual history to fall back on, and the "interview" framing device and occasional rivalry by the principals for "ownership" of the story is a stellar example of the meta for meta's sake that was the unfortunate legacy of the oh-so-postmodern '90s.
The problem, however, is that one starts to suspect that some or all of this is intentional. If the movie can be said to have a theme, it would be something like "aiming for fabulous and hitting awful", and its focus is, after all, an early-'90s world of decadence, populated by characters fully aware that they were living campy, superficial, and ultimately pathetic lives. After every few scenes in which you feel embarassed for everyone involved, Culkin will toss off a line written, delivered, and presented so perfectly that you have to believe that everyone knew exactly what they were going for, a sort of Nerf Harmony Korine.
Even if you were to wholeheartedly embrace the awful aesthetic, it's still far from a perfect movie - though they nobly if disorientingly attempt to collapse and reorder several years of the tale for the sake of a tighter narrative, Bailey and Barbato present plenty of characters, subplots, and pieces of imagery that never go anywhere or build into anything greater, giving off the impression that they may just have been too close to their subject to give it an effective cinematic treatment. You won't be talking about this one for weeks afterwards, but if you're willing to put in a few hours and some patience, there's something of worth to be found. On a scale of five, I'd give it around three stars.