Rich-kid saga "Twelve" a compelling potboiler

Sun Jan 31, 2010 11:15pm EST

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PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - If you're going to do teenage angst and hedonism in a movie, it's oh-so-much-more exciting among the rich. When they get loopy on drugs, indulge in promiscuous sex or get into those little misunderstandings that end with guns going off, the lighting, decor and attire are far better than in grungy inner-city movies. So Joel Schumacher's "Twelve," the latest expose of self-indulgence among privileged teens, is sleek, giddy fun. The girls and the guys are hot, and every get-together takes place inside posh homes on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Jordan Melamed's screenplay is based on Nick McDonell's novel published when he was, as he says, "a pissed-off 17-year-old." So the point of view undoubtedly has a certain veracity, even if the story wanders into melodrama he may have picked up while watching movies -- Martin Scorsese's? -- on cable TV. You get this weird alchemy -- an authentic portrait of spoiled rich kids, lacking parental supervision yet possessing easy access to chemical mood changers, coupled with crime scenes more befitting those inner-city movies.

McDonell may well have been pissed off, but he was smart enough to write a compelling potboiler. And the filmmakers have picked up on his commercial instincts, filling the screen with beautiful -- and talented -- young men and women in designer clothes and jewels, whose characters indulge in utterly self-destructive, albeit eye-catching, behavior. Domestic box office looks likely to be above average for the film division of Hannover House, which acquired the film at Sundance.

Interestingly, the producers selected 70-year-old Schumacher to tell this tale of youth, no doubt trusting a veteran to deliver the goods on a fast 23-day shooting schedule but also realizing that this is familiar territory for the director of "St. Elmo's Fire" and "The Lost Boys." Schumacher not only delivers these goods, he gives enough texture to the tale that one might overlook its soap-opera aspects, until the film implodes from an excess of overheated elements.

The central figure is White Mike ("Gossip Girl's" Chace Crawford), an outsider with insider status. After his mother's cancer death, the distraught 17-year-old dropped out of high school to deal drugs to his much richer peers. (His dad runs a restaurant -- none too successfully, you're led to believe.)

You can make the case that White Mike is a descendent of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the late J.D. Salinger's seminal "Catcher in the Rye." Only Mike's alienation is less from his parents' generation than his own, which is buried in phony values. Crawford never lets his character show any antipathy toward his former classmates; rather he seeks his own annihilation following the wrenching death of his beloved mother.

Mike keeps everyone at arm's length, including Molly (Emma Roberts), who has adored him since childhood. Mike is the movie's connection between the street, represented by a much scarier drug dealer (Curtis "Fifty Cent" Jackson), and the wealthy teens. The latter group includes the prep school's It Girl, Sara (Esti Ginzburg, beautifully playing silky manipulation), and Jessica (Emily Meade, playing casual self-destruction), who gets hooked on the latest designer drug called Twelve.

There are younger kids such as Chris (Rory Culkin) and Mark (Charles Austin Saxton), who desperately want to be part of the in-crowd (and thereby get laid), and Andrew (Maxx Brawer) and Arturo (Alexander Flores), who have inherited swell looks along with money. The most puzzling youth is Claude (Billy Magnussen), an unhinged loner and clear descendent of Travis Bickle. He supposedly is only days out of rehab, but from the evidence he would be better off permanently stoned.

Melamed has wisely retained the novelist's wry voice by employing narration by Kiefer Sutherland, who has just the right insouciant infliction in his voice. The film benefits considerably from McDonell's pithy commentary on his characters' behavior.

Away from the Upper East Side action, a double murder takes place in Harlem that seems only tangentially connected to the main story. It does involve Mike's cousin and best friend, but the disconcerting effect is that of a police procedural over the arrest of a wrong man that keeps interrupting a satire of spoiled rich kids.

All paths do converge at a party to end all parties, bringing together the Harlem crimes, Claude's complete meltdown and the teens' worship of celebrity and status. This over-the-top finale turns a cautionary tale into a Greek tragedy, a switch in tone that this jaunty, ironic material cannot truly support. It's "Igby Does Down" meets "Taxi Driver," which sends the movie spiraling into absurdity.

Schumacher's cast is uniformly solid, but the sheer number of characters retained by Melamed from the novel makes it impossible to give each the screen time he or she deserves. One could imagine a miniseries based on this story that would follow the many personalities into further deliciously ill-considered escapades.

Designer Ethan Tobman and cinematographer Steven Fierberg make the story's milieu a glittering fantasyland of unlimited wealth and potential coupled with shortsighted values. Paul Zucker's smooth editing, weaving together the many plot threads, and Harry Gregson-Williams' plush score contribute to a strong production.

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