From The Parallax Review Vaults: S.F.W. (1994)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of S.F.W. was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

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Is there anything worse than a satire made by people who don’t know how to make a satire? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. War, famine, disease, and the Fox News Channel all continue to be terrible evils that are far more destructive than a bad attempt at satire. But for the sake of my argument, let’s pretend that bad satire was the worst of all possible evils. In this world of evil, poorly conceived and executed satires, not to give in to too much hyperbole, S.F.W. would be Hitler.

Cliff Spab (Stephen Dorff) and Wendy Pfister (Reese Witherspoon) are the only two survivors of a terrorist situation that found them held hostage in a suburban convenience store for 36 days. During that time, the terrorists were videotaping everything that went on. As the footage was aired on television, Cliff’s profane sarcasm made him a cult hero to a generation of slackers who adopt his catchphrase of “So fucking what?” as the answer to all of their problems. When Cliff and Wendy stumble back into the real world, they find themselves at the mercy of their families and friends who are looking to cash in on their fifteen minutes of fame. While Wendy makes the rounds of all the talk shows, Cliff tries to return to his boring life of drinking beer, smoking pot, and sleeping with the girl next door. When the media refuses to leave him to these simple pleasures, he takes off on a half-assed road trip that is apparently supposed to be a metaphor for Cliff trying to find himself. Because the film needed a dash of misplaced pretentiousness.

There are too many problems to list with S.F.W.. The first thing that annoys me about it is the title. At the time, I’m sure the idea was for the title to be edgy and subversive. Instead, it just comes across as smug and juvenile, much like the protagonist we are supposed to care about. The performances, from Dorff’s third-rate Christian Slater impression (which is already a third-rate Jack Nicholson impression) to Jake Busey’s sneering delivery as Cliff’s thuggish buddy, are one-note. One very, very bad note. Even normally welcome talents like Witherspoon, Joey Lauren Adams, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Tobey Maguire can’t salvage the awful script that they are given and come across with turns that made me feel embarrassed for them. But these performances are purely the by-product of a bad script and a director that has no handle on what type of film he wants to make. Is this a satire of media overexposure? Is it a character study of a man who unwittingly becomes a role-model but doesn’t want the responsibility? Is it a love story about two kids from different sides of the tracks? I don’t know, because co-writer/director Jefery Levy doesn’t seem to know. All of these films would have been bad, but at least there would have been a cohesion from scene to scene that allowed the actors to understand what they were playing.

The worst part of S.F.W. is the fact that when it was released, it had at least a sense of where popular culture was headed. While Natural Born Killers (which came out just a few months prior) had savagely attacked the media for glamorizing violence, Levy stumbled on to the reality television craze while it was still in its infancy. At one point, a character bemoans reality television as giving reality a bad name. That moment should have been what the film was about. I have my doubts that Levy would have made an interesting film about the subject, but it’s still a brief flicker of acknowledgment that a worthwhile film may have existed at some point in an early draft of the script or in the novel. Instead, the film just steamrolls over this moment, hurriedly rushing on to the next moment of self-satisfied kiddie-level anarchy. The fact that the most subversive thing that Cliff can think to do with his sudden fame is to become a “V.J.” shows just how little thought or imagination went into satirizing media obsession.

It’s really hard for me to stress just how awful this film is. Earlier in this review, I compared the film to Hitler. Maybe that’s just a little too far over-the-top. But I don’t think it would be going too far to say that if S.F.W. was a person, I’d punch it in the face. Repeatedly, with a roll of quarters clenched in my fist. It’s a waste of time and talent that should have never been greenlit. I rarely say this, but I hated this movie to the core of my being. Do yourself a favor and avoid it at all costs.

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