Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #33 SLC Punk!
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the column where I give YOU, the kindly Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account.
That price goes down to seventy five dollars if you’re a repeat customer like the patron who chose both SLC Punk! and its late-in-the-game sequel SLC Punk 2 for me to watch and write about. 1998’s SLC Punk! is fundamentally about nostalgia so it seems appropriate that I’d be revisiting it some twenty years or so since I first wrote scathingly of it as a 22 year newbie film critic.
That was quite literally a lifetime ago. I’m 42, so a lifetime of experience separates my first unhappy viewing of SLC Punk! from an equally, if not even more unhappy second. I always try to go into things with an open mind. People’s opinions change with time, after all. Time changes all things. Why should something like opinions about movies be the exception?
So I very much tried to watch SLC Punk! with an open mind. I wanted to like it or to love it, to see wonderful new things in it that escaped me back when I was a callow young kid and not a sad, weary old man. But boy did the movie make that impossible. Sometimes your opinion about something changes radically with time, with experience, with life.
That did not happen with SLC Punk! Having just re-watched it, I’m left with a sour anger towards it for being so hopelessly, excessively self-congratulatory and impressed with its own lame, inflated sense of transgression.
It’s a hopelessly square movie that thinks it’s pretty fucking cool, with the punk rock and the anarchy and what about all the beer? That’s pretty hardcore, huh? And what if I told you about the fights? That’s right: that crazy motherfucker young Jason Segel busts a whole lot of heads like the straight-up hardcore proto-normcore badass that he is but that makes the movie seem way more fun and funny than it actually is.
SLC Punk!, a very late nineties look back at the 1980s Salt Lake City Punk scene through the eyes and the manic motormouth of the one, the only Steve-O (Matthew Lillard so annoying you just want to punch him in the fucking face, seriously, and I like the guy) has aged in some weird and interesting ways, with a VERY young Jason Segel’s all too fleeting presence as a punk who looks like he’s about to take sixth grade school pictures and scuffles like a street-fighter from hell aging the best.
SLC Punk! is at its best when it is at its most culturally specific, like when our thirsty anti-heroes have to go to Wyoming or one of Utah’s three state-run liquor stores to get around Utah’s repressive, Mormonism-fueled liquor laws.
But even then, the movie can’t help but muck things up by transforming into a cartoonish, record scratch effect-ready variety show version of punk rock where the folks behind the counter at a Wyoming liquor store are so freaked out to see mohawks and leather jackets and other accoutrements of a punk movement well into its second decade of influence in both Europe and the United States that they assume these SLC punks are escaped mental patients or British. SLC Punk! is not shy about having its titular migraine-inducer really stick it to buffoonish, cartoonish yokels who don’t get it, man with his attitude and his shenanigans and the occasional mooning to reveal a 666 tattoo on his insouciantly displayed naked buttocks.
How “in your face” is SLC Punk!?! It opens with Steve-O, who will be looking directly into the camera and chattering away at us for 97 very long minutes as the film’s narrator and protagonist taking about how they don’t mind beating up some rednecks with pipes because “Rednecks for us were America incarnate, and America? Well, fuck America!”
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Let’s not get carried away here! This is AMERICA we’re talking about! Donald Trump Jr’s America! You can’t go around saying things like that without giving squares like myself a fright.
Fuck America? Why, I never!
“What can I say?” inquires Steve-O as part of the film’s wall-to-wall narration, “We weren’t much more than a couple of young punks!”, establishing a tone of brash, unearned self-satisfaction from which the film deviates only in its third act, when the party grows stale and all the cheap kicks turn into addictions, mental breaks and un-fun, un-hip psychosis.
SLC Punk! came at the very tale end of the 90s, the decade of Quentin Tarantino’s emergence and the stylistically and thematically revolutionary and wildly influential Goodfellas. For all of its fights, drugs and petty criminality, SLC Punk! isn’t really a crime movie but it is a movie about storytelling, about stories, about life being made up not of atoms or genetic material but rather of anecdotes that we never stop loving to tell or hear.
At its best, writer-director James Merendino’s semi-autobiographical SLC Punk! feels ripped casually from the fadeed back pages of real life. Its sneering anti-hero travels a surprisingly traditional, conservative arc from defiant, rebellious kid to pragmatic young man more than willing to meet the world halfway but mostly SLC Punk! takes the form of a bunch of shit happening in a a milieu alternately drawn with affection and heavy-handed smugness.
SLC Punk! is a coming-of-age story about Steve-O and Heroin Bob. In his capacity as a narrator who is continually telling when the movie should be showing, Steve-O marvels that Heroin Bob has the nickname Heroin Bob even though—get this—he actually hates needles! And drugs of any kind! Yes, instead of being sincere, this nickname is ironic, the same way you might call a fat man Skinny or one plagued with an air of overwhelming despair Happy. SLC Punk! is so pleased with itself that it acts as if its characters came up with the ironic nickname. Does the ironically named Heroin Bob meet an equally ironic passing? That would be ironic!
Steve-O is such a natural super-genius that he gets into Harvard Law School without even applying. That’s no small feat considering the movie depicts him as such an inveterate ne’er do well and all-around scamp (he’s like a cross between Dennis the Menace and Sid Vicious) that he seems to have spent his entire time in college flicking boogers at the professors and thinking about how hardcore he is, with the haircut and the anarchism and the manic panic hair dye and the in your face personality that just makes you want to grab him by his scrawny little neck and strangle him while screaming, “Why you little!”
Steve-O fancies himself an authentic punk, and a genuine anarchist, when his conception of anarchism as “No government and no rules” is a bumper-sticker slogan presented as a legitimate political and social philosophy until it isn’t anymore. Oh, and he really does not care for Ronald Reagan and is not shy about expressing that disdain in prankish ways.
Watching SLC Punk! is like spending a very long, very shapeless 97 minutes (this is the kind of movie where you hit display on the remote and audibly yell out, “A half hour left! Ya gotta be fucking with me!” to no one in particular) watching Matthew Lillard cos-play as a more punk rock Denis Leary, a demented gleam of masturbatory delight emanating from his pores with every overwritten monologue or flashily empty verbal jag.
It’s Steve-O Mansplains the Universe as Lillard makes like a poor man’s version of Ewan MacGregor in Transpotting and hips what he clearly imagines are an impressed, if not awed, audience, to the fundamental emptiness of society, man, and religion, man, and conformity, man, and the eternal war between the punks and rednecks, the lowest form of life in the eyes of these punks because they look and act differently than them.
Steve-O isn’t afraid to drop truth bombs on his corporate lawyer dad (Christopher McDonald), who is all “I want to provide you with the best, most expensive possible education at Harvard Law School but I also respect your individuality and sense of personal ethics”, to which Steve-O is all, “Fuck you and your boundless generosity, old man. Your stupid hippie revolution was a lie and a failure just like your marriage to mom. Fuck you, hippie! Fuck you, yuppie scum, although I will later take you up on that offer to send me to Harvard Law School, incidentally.”, tossing in some sarcastic peace signs for good measure.
In its third act, SLC Punk follows in the footsteps of those dreary Hippiesploitation cautionary tales and watches with concern and unmistakable judgment as our deceptively grounded and conventional anti-hero looks on as his less strong-willed and, let’s face it, morally inferior peers give into the madness, addiction or just plain lameness the film depicts as inevitable consequences of staying in the scene too long. You’ll end up begging on a street corner, a ghost of your former self, which, to be honest, was pretty shitty and weak as well. Or you’ll overdose because you were hanging out with countercultural types instead of studying for the bar.
In this case, SLC seems to stand for both Salt Lake City and SociaLly Conservative. It’s all fun and games until the drugs stop being party favors and become a way of life and, all too often, a way of death as well and you start to see the colorful characters who filled up the scene in not so fun contexts like homelessness and mental illness.
SLC Punk! ends by sheepishly acknowledging that the punk outlaws it has been working so hard to convince us are cool, with so little success, are, in fact a couple of dorks who were into D&D and Rush before Heroin Bob made like Natalie Portman in Garden State and played a song for young Steve-O that straight up changed his life and flipped him from Poindexter to punk, from milquetoast to rebel.
Buried in SLC Punk!’s vast sea of pretension, amidst overwrought, death-haunted LSD sex freakouts are a few nicely realized moments, like the way an eccentric, much older, much richer hanger-on played by Til Schweiger seems to float in and out of the proceedings, or a concert that devolves into a sexual jealousy-fueled riot, and then everyone makes up as if nothing untoward had happened.
SLC Punk! has a terrific soundtrack befitting a coming of age movie about how we let music and scenes define us before we grow up and figure out how to be true, authentic selves the includes the high-powered, seemingly expensive likes of The Stooges, The Specials, Ramones, Blondie, Velvet Undergound, Minor Threat and more. The intensity and messy passion of the music lends the movie an energy and an electricity it otherwise does not merit or possess.
SLC Punk! is a movie about growing up, about a know-it-all who comes to realize that he’s as big a hypocritical, pragmatic dick as anyone else, particularly the people around him he so harshly judges. But it comes to that understanding far too late to redeem an intermittently compelling vanity project long on manufactured ‘tude and short on self-reflection and honesty.
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