The men who populate Very Bad Things, the writing-directing debut of actor Peter Berg (The Last Seduction), represent the clear, lethal distillation of the American dream. Epitomes of middle-class, white-collar, suburban comfort and prosperity, these quintessential white guys understand rituals, and the upcoming wedding of Kyle (Jon Favreau) calls for nothing less than a bachelor party in Las Vegas, the American capital of socially acceptable debauchery.
Tensions are mounting even as they travel from Southern California to Vegas in a white minivan piloted by the married-with-children Adam (Daniel Stern), the group's nominal voice of experience. Kyle is having heated, detailed and guilt-laden discussions via cell phone with his fiancée, Laura (Cameron Diaz), who is obsessed with having the picture-perfect wedding, no matter what the emotional or financial toll.
Among this group of old "buddies" -- the reason they're still friends seems to elude even them -- tensions are rising, then bursting on the surface like poisonous gas bubbles. The passive Charles (Leland Orser) and contentious Michael (Jeremy Piven), Adam's supremely resentful younger brother, get into the fray, but the group's true leader, Boyd (Christian Slater), quickly squelches any dissent.
The party Boyd has planned for Kyle includes not only copious amounts of alcohol and drugs in their suite -- equipped with a big-screen TV for those sports bonding moments -- but a command performance by a stripper-prostitute.
But on that testosterone-fueled evening, everything goes straight to hell. When the woman is accidentally killed and they conspire to cover up her death, the slight moral foundation under these rootless men's feet suddenly gives way.
Peter Berg has constructed Very Bad Things as an amorality tale, a black comedy of tar pit depth and consistency. He begins with characters who are just slightly off-kilter -- especially those played by the fearsomely good Slater and Diaz -- then gleefully pushes them overboard into inspired dementia. As a director, Berg has a knack for striking imagery, framing the five friends as they desperately hold a bathroom door closed -- waiting for the imminent death of a wounded hotel security guard inside -- as a nightmare pietà.
Whatever savage commentary Peter Berg is making about the hidden rage of American guyville gradually loses its impact as Very Bad Things progresses from one outrageous episode to the next, dulling the satire's overall impact. But perhaps restraint is too much to ask for from these Peter Pans, who find that even their Wendy has lost her grip on reality.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].