Despite Explosive Visual Technique, 'Kaboom' Fizzles Out

Marianne Williams/Courtesy

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Queer cinema has typically been relegated to the fringe, and both gay and straight filmmakers are to blame. Gregg Araki, helmer of the New Queer Cinema of the '90s and director of "The Living End" (1992) and "Mysterious Skin" (2004), is one artist contesting that crisis of representation - yet such a crisis remains afoot in the sexually frustrating gray areas of his latest film, "Kaboom."

Thomas Dekker plays Smith, a freshman film-studies major and professed omni-sexual. Or maybe he's bisexual. ("That's just a layover on the way to Gay Town," as Carrie Bradshaw once said.) His best friend (Haley Bennett) is a fashionably pessimistic art major, a dressed-down version of Jane Lane from "Daria." Smith lusts for his bro-y, bleach-blond roommate who could be gay ("He exfoliates every night"). He picks up a guy at a nude beach and eventually sleeps with man-eating London (Juno Temple), a girl all too happy to put out for anyone. All the while, Smith is stalked by men in animal masks and receives written messages saying he's "the Chosen One," culminating in an absurd pansexual apocalypse.

Per Araki tradition, the actors are bad and the dialogue is worse. This is Araki's auteur style. But here, the camp doesn't charm like it should: It gnaws at you. Rather than go with his gut, Araki relies heavily on the cliches of gay representation that have marred queer cinema: the media geek misfit, the sexually rapacious foreigner, the daddy issues.

It's easy to applaud the occasioning of a more incisive picture of young sex lives in "Kaboom." But this film's story does not feel true because Smith's sexual manifesto hinges on a pride and pretension that a gay audience would, or should, scoff at.

The Smith character recalls Jon, the HIV-positive film critic in "The Living End," a likable and honest gay film. Both are loners grappling with the hetero-norms imposed upon them; they can't deal, so they take solace in film (I know the type well). Together, Smith and Jon display candid autobiography on Araki's part. Yet Smith, in his sexual ambiguity, is the inversion of Jon, suggesting that almost 20 years later, Araki is starting to pander to straight audiences who want to be assured that no one is really "homosexual." In effect, they can breathe easy.

Basically, "Kaboom" is unbelievably bad. If there's a stage in the movie life-cycle beyond straight-to-video, "Kaboom" belongs there. But there is something about this orgiastic mess you can't look away from. Like Araki's 2007 stoner comedy "Smiley Face," "Kaboom" has potential that, like Smith's sexual frustration, never becomes kinetic. Araki gets the ball rolling full well but doesn't pick it up later. Sure, he wields explosive visual technique and has the makings of an interesting plot - sex, the occult and the end of the world - but he makes a lazy attempt to bind all the loose ends in the last 10 minutes. He's got a doozy of a third act, with bravado that goes ka-splat.

Though "Kaboom" gives reason to believe otherwise, there's hope yet for a New Queer Cinema of the 2000s. So far, the decade's big entries haven't gotten it right: Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) fell victim to the notion that the lover must die in order to redeem gay desire, backwardly affirming that the closet is always safest. The homosexuals had to die in Tom Ford's "A Single Man" (2009) too, though for reasons I understand better. That said, Gregg Araki's shot at authentic gay representation is admirable, even when it misses the mark.

Revel in sex, the occult and the end of the world with Ryan at [email protected]

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