[Screen It]

(2000) (James Marsden, Lena Headey) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: When a bit of malicious gossip they spread gets completely out of control, a trio of friends must figure out what to do and whether they should try to stop it.
Derrick (JAMES MARSDEN), Jones (LENA HEADEY) and Travis (NORMAN REEDUS) are three close friends and college roommates. Living off Derrick's family wealth, the trio get along splendidly, partying all night and attending one class in particular during the day, a journalism course taught by Professor Goodwin (ERIC BOGOSIAN) that gets them thinking about how news and gossip are intertwined.

At a party one night, they spot Naomi Preston (KATE HUDSON), a spoiled rich girl, and her boyfriend, Beau Edson (JOSHUA JACKSON). While assisting a drunk and nearly sick girl, Derrick happens to spy upon Naomi and Beau fooling around, although nothing apparently happens between them since Naomi passes out.

All of which gives Derrick and his roommates an idea. Since none of them particularly likes Naomi and she has a reputation for abstaining from sex, they decide to plant a little playful gossip that she and Beau actually had sex, and then see how their malicious rumor spreads around the campus.

Of course, the story travels like wildfire, and once Naomi's friend Sheila (MARISA COUGHLAN) informs her of what she's heard, Naomi begins to think that perhaps Beau raped her while she was passed out. While Jones begins to get a little antsy with this twist in the story, Derrick and Travis want to see how it continually develops.

Eventually, Naomi believes she was raped and detectives Kelly (SHARON LAWRENCE) and Curtis (EWARD JAMES OLMOS) arrive on the scene, investigating Beau and interviewing anyone who might know what really happened. Realizing the mess they've created, the three friends try to set matters straight, but in doing so unleash previously hidden secrets that soon threaten their friendship and perhaps even their lives.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
There's an old saying that "the truth shall set you free," but alas, that's obviously not always the case. That's particularly true when damaging false accusations are made against the innocent. For instance, just recently in the local news, several young students accused their schoolteacher of fondling them in the locker room.

Immediately branded a child molester and/or pedophile, the teacher was suspended and everyone began to question the once honorable man, wondering if it were possible for him to do such things. In this case it wasn't, as the kids later confessed to conspiring against him with such lies for his earlier reprimanding them in gym class. They got off with some sort of lenient punishment, but the teacher, while exonerated, will always be tainted by those false accusations, his life forever altered and/or ruined.

That's a prime example of how lies, especially when allowed to fester and spread, as they always will, infiltrate the public's mind and then reproduce as a virus called gossip. I distinctly remember a social exercise in school that proved just that. A group of students sat in a circle with the first student whispering a story to the next, who then repeated it to the third and so on. By the time the story returned to the first student, it had mutated into something quite different than from how it began.

Both such examples are explored in the appropriately titled "Gossip," a tale of playful maliciousness that goes bad and proceeds to turn what initially appears to be a casual, but wicked drama into a would-be thriller, just as inevitably as the gossip found within it mutates into something that soon gets out of control.

Something of a mediocre morality tale that plays off another old saying - this time about that tangled web one weaves when they first plan to deceive - the film is moderately intriguing and has a decent, but not spectacular premise, but never quite manages to turn into the enthralling thriller it obviously wishes to be.

Stylistically mounted and set in one of those incredible loft-like apartments that probably only exist in the movies, the film starts off with a threesome, played by James Marsden, Lena Headey and Norman Reedus, who conspire to start a rumor for a class project, but mainly just for the fun of it.

Of course, the rumor spreads, mutates and spirals out of control, much to the surprise of those who started it, but certainly not to anyone in the audience. From that point on, the various members of the group try their hand at damage or spin control and predictably begin to turn on one another as the heat is turned up.

Unfortunately, that's about all the film has to offer, and first-time director Davis Guggenheim (who's directed episodes of TV's "ER" and "NYPD Blue") and screenwriters Gregory Poirier ("Rosewood") and Theresa Rebeck ("Harriet the Spy") never take much of an imaginative approach at delivering even that.

Although their work partially toys with the "spin" that gossip can generate (as far as what the public believes is the "truth"), it doesn't utilize that tool, or weapon, if you will, as much or as effectively as one might expect. Despite the title and basic plot, the opposing forces don't do a great deal of generating, delivering and/or manipulating further gossip once the initial rumor has set things into motion.

It doesn't help matters that the characters are of the late teen/twenty-something cookie cutter variety who never manage to elicit much emotion - positive or negative - from the viewer toward them. Since we don't particularly care about the characters one way or the other, and due to the plot following a predictable, but not particularly remarkable course, the film ends up feeling mediocre at best and/or silly at worst.

That latter part particularly applies to the ending that's presumably supposed to come off as a big surprise and/or shock. Instead, it simply turns out to be a contrived plot element that feels far more manufactured in a "clever" screenwriting fashion than something that's believable or makes sense.

The performances, while delivered by a young and attractive cast, are rather flat (no doubt at least partially due to the mediocre script and its characters) and don't help in making the proceedings any more interesting. As such, James Marsden ("The X-Men," "Disturbing Behavior"), Lena Headey ("Mrs. Dalloway," "The Remains of the Day") and Norman Reedus ("8MM," "Mimic") end up making little of an impression on the viewer.

The rest of the younger half of the cast, Kate Hudson ("200 Cigarettes"), Joshua Jackson ("The Skulls") and Marisa Coughlan ("Teaching Mrs. Tingle") face similar problems from inhabiting anemic characters, while the adults, including Edward James Olmos ("Stand and Deliver"), Sharon Lawrence (TV's "NYPD Blue") and Eric Bogosian ("Talk Radio"), only have smaller bit parts that never amount to much.

That thought pretty much sums up the film as a whole. While the notion of playful gossip getting out of control and wreaking havoc on both the "accused" and the perpetrators provides for some interesting dramatic and perhaps even suspenseful possibilities, the film unfortunately doesn't do much to parlay that into something that will elicit much of any reaction from most viewers. Unlikely to generate much beyond so-so buzz of its own, this "Gossip" really isn't worth telling others about. We give the film a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 18, 2000 / Posted April 21, 2000

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