200 Cigarettes

(Risa Bramon Garcia, USA, 1999)


It is easy to imagine that Risa Bramon Garcia's 200 Cigarettes is yet another sophisticated, twentysomething romantic comedy about love, sex and relationships, in the vein of Chasing Amy (1997).

Such a tag would usually imply that the film not only depicts a particular age group, but is also aimed at similarly aged people in the movie audience.

Then again, judging from the period chosen, 200 Cigarettes is perhaps targeting the thirtysomething crowd. On New Year's Eve, 1981, a large, disparate group of characters bum around streets, bars and apartments, all in search of that magic party which will bring happiness and romance. The '80s nostalgia is laid on thick, complete with a cameo from Elvis Costello.

The strange truth is that this film is really devised for the entertainment of today's young teenagers, continuing a trend inaugurated in recent times by The Wedding Singer (1998). Its cavalcade of songs, clothes, design fixtures and tawdry sexual manners from a lost era are predicated on a single, simple hunch – that the '80s look and sound absolutely hysterical to contemporary fifteen-year-olds, like some bizarre monument dropped by passing aliens.

Search in vain here for anything resembling a thoughtful comment on the '80s – this is not a dull, pretentious, moralistic essay along the lines of Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998). In the fine tradition of the more vulgar teen movies of the late '70s, 200 Cigarettes is mostly obsessed with the twin difficulties of getting stoned and getting laid.

It is a gaudy, shrill effort from start to finish, bereft of nuance or subtlety – and this is precisely what makes it so entertaining and funny. The cast is a true smorgasbord, for good and ill. Some (Martha Plimpton, Paul Rudd, Ben Affleck) ham like amateurs or just stand around looking good; others (Courtney Love, Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo) offer concentrated, crafty character portraits.

It could certainly have been smarter, better shaped, and more developed in the gag department. Even the significance of the title gets a little lost in the rush-hour traffic of the film's narrative. It is, however, useless to judge such a popcorn movie by conventional standards of drama.

Like an ancient Cheech and Chong comedy, 200 Cigarettes makes a merry virtue of being dopey, lazy and flakey – and that is some kind of achievement.

© Adrian Martin May 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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