[Screen It]


(2001) (Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke) (R)

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Comedy: In a reality TV show that pits contestants against one another in a lethal game, the various participants must kill or be killed in order to be named the winner in this parody of reality-based programming.
In this parody of reality-based TV shows, various contestants are randomly chosen to participate in "The Contenders," a long-running TV game show where the winner is the only one who's still alive at the end. The reigning champ is Dawn (BROOKE SMITH), an eight-month pregnant woman who's been brought back to her Connecticut hometown to take on her new foes.

Among them is Connie (MARYLOUISE BURKE) a middle-aged ER nurse who's handy with lethal injections; Franklin (RICHARD VENTURE), a cantankerous senior citizen; Tony (MICHAEL KAYCHECK), an unemployed husband and father; Lindsay (MERRITT WEVER), a teen whose parents -- Sheila (DONNA HANOVER) and Bob (DANTON STONE) - encourage her success; and Jeff (GLENN FITZGERALD), a thirty-something artist whose wife, Doria (ANGELINA PHILLIPS), must not only deal with him being chosen for the show, but also his suicidal tendencies due to having cancer and the fact that he and Dawn dated back in high school.

As the show's cameras follow them around and interview them for their insights about themselves and their opponents, the various contestants set out to avoid being killed while trying to off the others and thus be named the show's champion.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
When it comes to making and releasing films, timing is everything and occasionally a matter of sheer luck. If a picture hits the curve at just the right moment, it can catch the public's fancy and be a hit or at least successful. On the other hand, if a film and its subject matter are either before their time or too late in catching the wave, audiences will either not understand the significance of what they're seeing or get the joke, or will see the offerings as recycled has-beens.

Whereas the first "Pokémon" film and "The China Syndrome" benefited from perfect and accidental timing respectively, other pictures such as those Lambada films missed the mark and thus failed (although the fact they were bad obviously didn't help matters).

If timing is indeed crucial for the success or failure of certain topical films, then "Series 7: The Contenders" is probably being released at just the right moment. A violent parody of the whole reality show phenomenon that now populates and dominates the prime time TV schedule, the film - reportedly conceived and shot before the success of the original "Survivor" -- gets in its share of jokes and fun ribbing of such programming. Yet, it goes on way too long, is a bit too violent for a comedy, and simply doesn't have enough substance or creativity to fuel, let alone sustain, its ninety some minute runtime.

Of course, considering the extremes that shows such as "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "Real World" will take in efforts to intrigue, shock and "entertain" their viewers, a "reality"-based, kill or be killed show seems like an eventual and unfortunate evolution of such programming. Accordingly, writer/director Daniel Minahan and his cast get in their fair share of jokes about just how stupid and sensationalistic such reality shows can be, including all of the inane interviews with the protagonists and all of the ensuing melodrama, dramatic reenactments and titillating voice over narration.

Yet, for all of its in-your-face potential, this updated variant on "Death Race 2000" meets "The Running Man" with a little "Network" thrown in for good measure isn't as effective - and certainly not as subtle - as Paddy Chayefsky & Sidney Lumet's Oscar nominee or the more recent "The Truman Show" and "EdTV" in showing the desires, goals and efforts of those behind the camera and in front of the TV.

Although there are some decent and even uproarious laughs to be had, part of the film's problem is that it can't decide if its satire should be grounded in our current reality, or exist in a sort of Twilight Zone type fantasy world. The notion that the participants are picked at random is inspired lunacy, as are the reactions of all of them and those who know them.

For instance, a young protagonist's parents give her pep talks before she heads off for a kill, giving the film something of a bizarre, black comedy aura. While that works for a while and generates some satirical and outrageous humor - as long as you note the filmmakers' "wink wink, nudge nudge," tongue in cheek mentality - its general nature and the lack of any clever follow-through limits the film's possibilities.

Perhaps it's because the show's rules are never fully explored nor explained, but the participants' reactions to being chosen, along with their subsequent behavior, just doesn't feel right, even for a parodic fantasy world. Beyond the point that the contestants are randomly picked, constantly observed and must kill or be killed to "win," the rest of the rules and regulations are left up to the viewer's imagination. Although the absence of them doesn't severely diminish their black humor value, our being let in on the secret would have made the film more devilishly clever and seemingly completely though out.

I kept wondering about all aspects the show, how it started, and why the participants are seemingly able to get away with murder. Then there's the matter of whether the contestants can escape or if they're trapped in some "Truman Show" type way; whether society and the TV audience views them as celebrities or goat-like fodder; and why it seems like the winner is really the loser since they return as the reigning champ in the show's next round and thus seem perpetually caught in a lethal loop.

Maybe it's part of Minahan's observational joke about such matters - after all, he previously witnessed such people while producing Fox's "Cops" show - but most of the characters don't seem particularly nervous or careful while out and about - where they could be picked off at any moment -- and the fact that they know the identity of the other contestants makes things seem too easy.

As such, we never see much in the way of clever planning or strategy, and the satire thus loses some of its edge and punch. Not surprisingly, the film may begin to frustrate some viewers when they realize that all of the possibilities and full potential of the premise aren't fully explored as the proceedings unfold.

The performances, while understandably exaggerated and comically one-dimensional, are often fun, but how can they not be considering their and the story's overall set-up. Of course, if the thought of one of them being an eight-month pregnant killer doesn't strike your funny bone, then this picture obviously isn't for you as that's the style of irreverent comedy that pervades the proceedings.

As that character, Brooke Smith ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Vanya on 42nd Street") delivers a terrific black comedy performance as the venom-filled, matter of fact contestant who must off her opponents both before and during labor. Glenn Fitzgerald ("Finding Forrester," "The Sixth Sense") shows up as her suicidal ex-boyfriend, while Marylouise Burke ("Bringing Out The Dead," "Celebrity") is fabulous as an ER nurse who takes a Dr. Kevorkian approach to the contest.

The "fun" of such material obviously stems from the contradictory nature of such characters being murderers as well as the contrast between that behavior and their later, more serene and contemplative on-camera interviews. Other performers playing the remaining contestants include Richard Venture ("All the President's Men"), Michael Kaycheck ("Requiem for a Dream") and Merritt Wever ("The Adventures of Sebastian Cole"), but their characters and accompanying material aren't quite as sharp, despite a few funny moments of the latter character's parents encouraging her success.

Of course, we're never quite sure what that may be, and that omission and the other aforementioned ones do prevent the film from being as clever and funny as it could have been. Although it has its share of amusing and occasionally hilarious black comedy moments, the basic underlying joke does begin to wear a bit thin long before the last act of violence closes out this particular chapter of the show.

As it stands, the film is sporadically funny - more so in the beginning - but ultimately comes off as a clever idea that feels as if it wasn't fully realized. Clearly not for all viewers and certainly not for those who will only take it at face value and thus miss the parody, "Series 7: The Contenders" is entertaining enough to warrant a 6 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed February 27, 2001 / Posted March 16, 2001

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