Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 # 12 Urge (2016)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, the column where I give the kindly, site-sustaining patrons who make a one time pledge of one hundred dollars an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch, and then write about. I’ve been happy to overjoyed with the entries so far, a streak that continues with 2016’s Urge.
The patron who ultimately chose Urge for the column had been agitating on behalf of it for a while on this site and in my Facebook group Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin for reasons that almost instantly became apparent to me. There are garden variety bad movies and then there are movies that cast Pierce Brosnan as a dope-dealing, vaping evil God in Tom Wolfe’s pristine white suit in a performance that, to borrow one of the movie’s favorite words, can only be deemed an "epic" tribute to Al Pacino’s similarly scenery-devouring performance as a real New York devil in The Devil’s Advocate that also, to borrow the parlance of the young people, represents an epic fail.
Needless to say, Urge is the second kind of bad movie. It has the lunatic courage of its convictions. It takes guts and audacity to be this monumentally, mind-bogglingly, unforgettably terrible and Urge is nothing if not committed.
The hysterical morality tale was written by novelist and Bad Boys 2 co-screenwriter Jerry Stahl, who is best known for writing Permanent Midnight, a memoir about how writing for Alf bummed him out to the point of getting addicted to heroin that was later adapted for the screen in a movie starring Stahl’s friend, collaborator and supporter Ben Stiller. Stahl has script-doctored some of Stiller's films and is apparently responsible for his character being a nurse in Meet the Parents, a piece of information so pointless and random that I needed to share it with you.
In Urge, using the titular designer drug causes users to do things worse than prostitute their gifts for a big paycheck working on a surreally banal sitcom about a wisecracking, cat-eating alien from the Planet Melmac, including murder, sex-murder, suicide (otherwise known as self-murder), epic fuckfests, foul language, rudeness and much, much worse. It’s Reefer Madness for millennials if Reefer Madness were primarily a heavy-handed biblical allegory about the tainted nature of man.
Ah, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before a microcosm of the shittiest elements of society devolves into madness and anarchy, we’re introduced to a group of friends who are, objectively speaking, the worst people in the world. The worst of the lot is sociopathic billionaire douchebag Neal (Danny Masterson, who also produced), who is introduced flying a miniature remote-control helicopter in a business meeting opposite Easy Rider: The Ride Back’s Jeff Fahey. Why? Because he fucking can. What are YOU going to do about it?
I’m learning all sorts of things about business writing for this site, and, to a lesser extent, running it as a modestly successful small business. Dead Silence taught me to establish dominance by shaving in front of other people to really drive home just how little I give a fuck about social decorum. Urge is even more informative. Neal's introduction serves multiple purposes. It lets us know that Neal is a figure of near-total evil in a movie that already has AN EVIL GOD IN IT because he sneeringly asserts dominance by saying things like, “My helicopter is on the roof. Can we move this along?” and "My biggest problem is whether or not I can get to the roof before my chopper touches down.”
I’m going to try that in my next business meeting. Forget looking impatiently at your watch: constantly mentioning that your helicopter is waiting for you is a much stronger, more obnoxious way of asserting that you’re operating from a position of strength.
Neal has enough money to hire Pete Sampras to give his friends tennis lessons and DJ Z-Trip to make each of them personalized relaxation mixes and for them to enjoy a decadent vacation on a secluded party island where they’ll be able to indulge their naughtiest and most extravagant fantasies.
Ah, but let's talk about the friends. There’s the friend whose only semi-distinctive characteristic is that he used to be massively overweight but now is thin and desirable. Will his former obesity figure in the plot in the clumsiest, least artful manner imaginable? Yes, of course. Everything here happens in the clumsiest, least artful manner imaginable.
These singularly unlikable friends head to Party Island, where their debauched, hedonistic, sensation-crazed buddy Jason (Justin Chadwick) is not only there, but getting his fuck on with a random mystery woman in what one of the buddies awkwardly and admiringly refers to as “amazing looking sex.”
Jason, the big goof, went and drank a one hundred thousand dollar bottle of scotch Neal had received for the weekend by accident—the big dope!—before being approached at a debauched club that’s like a cross between the somber masked orgy of Eyes Wide Shut and the club scenes from Basic Instinct.
Urge references the old adage “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”, which Norman Mailer famously quipped while ransacking John Updike’s summer home for jewelry, cash and prescription pills. Accordingly, Urge’s naughty, pansexual orgy scenes are so derivative of Basic Instinct that the director might as well have been working from Paul Verhoeven’s storyboards.
In the twenty-four years separating Basic Instinct and Urge, our conception of pansexual cinematic decadence has not evolved at all beyond a sub-Bob Fosse pastiche of glowering, anonymous orgy enthusiasts in bondage and fetish gear groping each other, and also actual movie stars with lines and characters and arcs and everything, against the sinister yet seductive throb of electronic dance music and atmospheric strobe lights.
Urge tantalizingly asks us to imagine a sensual underground world of hot chicks in lingerie making out with each other! Can you even handle that level of transgression? I’m guessing that you cannot.
At the sexily Satanic nightclub Jason meets a gentleman named The Red Bastard, an evil jester sort in malevolent mime make-up and a lumpy red leotard that makes him look like a sentient deformed nut sack, who introduces him to a figure known only as “The Man” (Brosnan, in a performance of great quantity, if not quality) who, in turn, introduces him to Urge.
Urge is the perfect drug, the kind Huey Lewis and Trent Reznor sang so eloquently about, except that if you take too much URGE, you are OVERcome with an instinct to KILL, which reminds me of one of my favorite 1990s Chicago cult rock bands, Material Issue. They’re really underrated. You should check out their oeuvre if you like power-pop. They were a lot better than Urge Overkill.
The Man knows Jason, and his secrets, almost like he’s an all-powerful deity just barely pretending to be a drug dealer and nightclub owner and not obviously the metaphorical manifestation of God’s indifference and dissatisfaction with mankind rendered flesh. And he’s vaping and cackling and dressed like Tom Wolfe at the Kentucky Derby.
There is a catch, however. Urge is perfect. It gives you the ultimate high and there’s no hangover. The one downside is that you can only take it once. What happens if you take it more than once? Well, let’s just say that there’s a reason why no one asks pertinent follow-up questions in Tales from the Crypt or movies like this: it’d give the whole game away.
Sure enough, the terrible, terrible friends have the night of their life the first time they use Urge. They lose their inhibitions and devolve, or rather evolve, into one writhing, ecstatic ball of orgasmic flesh experiencing the orgy of a lifetime.
Also, one of the women fucks a cake. She didn’t set out to fuck a cake but she was feeling all kinds of high and horny and the cake was just lying there alluringly, waiting to be fondled and caressed and loved as no cake has ever been loved before.
It’s like taking Molly for the first time. Only instead of a crushing come-down the next night the revelers are overcome not just with long-repressed sexual feelings towards their peers but also with violent compulsions they’re no longer willing or able to contain.
What begins as a no-holds-barred fuck-fest quickly devolves into a horror show. A friend’s casual, tossed-off, post-Urge comment that she’d like to murder a friend crudely foreshadows a grim turn where the “friends” turn on each other with predictable viciousness. The previously fat friend, for example, chokes a sadistic sexy female friend as sadomasochistic sex play and then later, while lifting weights, accidentally decapitates himself.
That unfortunate and ghoulish turn of events would have slightly more of an impact, or any impact whatsoever, if it was even possible to care about any of these characters as anything other than vessels for a very heavy-handed message about humanity and free will and our infinite capacity for self-destruction and self-sabotage.
God help him, Jerry Stahl set out to say some very profound things about the biggest of issues in life and came away with a hysterical exercises in hyper-camp that makes The Apple look thoughtful and reflective and understated by comparison.
It’s a testament to how interchangeable and poorly defined the characters are here that one of the revelers straight up fucks a cake and that still wasn’t enough for me to be able to tell her apart from the sexy, sexed-up actresses in the movie who did not engage in a drugged-up act of sexual congress with food.
I will remember Cameron Diaz fucking a car in The Counselor until my dying day, along with Javier Bardem describing the spectacle as “too gynecological to be sexy” but the cake-fucker here didn't even make enough of an impact on me to even remember what she does in the rest of the film. I will, however, say that I found the cake-fucking too gustatory to be sexy.
Urge begins as lurid lifestyle porn, then makes a clumsy shift into biblical allegory before eventually becoming a different kind of zombie movie. In Urge, drug use takes away your humanity and your sense of morality and ethics, and leaves you a slave to sensation at any costs, including your own life and the lives of others.
It’s not just the friends who are affected: nearly everyone on the island has been turned into a sex murder drug zombie by using Urge more than the once, with the exception of Jason, who is so in touch with his urges that Urge has no effect on him. This makes Jason our protagonist and the character we’re ostensibly supposed to root for and identify with but he’s only slightly less of a cipher than his suddenly blood-and-sex crazed fuck zombies around him.
Deep into the film’s third act, long after people have stopped being polite and gotten real, and also really murderous, the wonderful Kevin Corrigan appears as a mustachioed cop in a hospital overcome with madness and kill-crazy fuck-zombies. He points out a woman who’s there because she drank Lysol and Corrigan’s cop objects adorably, “Lysol’s not a BEVERAGE!”
Corrigan’s entire role probably lasts about a minute and a half yet I cared more about this disbelieving law enforcement agent in the 90 or so seconds before he’s shot in the head than I did about all of the other characters combined over the course of the entire movie.
That’s the magic of a great character actor. They can enter a fascinatingly abysmal, almost impressively terrible motion picture and through sheer talent and personality carve out something that’s human and funny and memorable and distinctive regardless of context.
Urge does not deserve Kevin Corrigan but his presence here is one of a number of factors elevating this hysterical melodrama from merely bad to transcendently awful.
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