It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and sometimes it was even worse than that. Thus is Party Monster's take on the whole club-kid phenomenon that wormed its way through the Big Apple in the late-'80s and early-'90s. With Andy Warhol dead and Studio 54 a hazy memory, the keys to the city's dance emporiums got handed over to a group of drug-fueled misfits dressed like small children who'd gone to clown school and undergone sex-change operations. Being outrageous was the end, looking fabulous was the means -- that and starting each day with a bowl of Special K, and I don't mean the breakfast cereal. In retrospect, it had to end, but did it have to end so sordidly? Michael Alig, who presided over the bacchanal as if it were a Tupperware party in his own home, is now serving a 20-year sentence for murder. And you don't want to know what he did with the body.
Or maybe you do. Party Monster is counting on attracting those who like to wallow in blood-soaked decadence. But it's especially designed for those who wish they could have been there, basking in the Limelight. That happens to be the name of the converted church where Alig, a party promoter, conducted his nightly services -- theme parties that gleefully crossed the boundaries of taste and decorum. There was the time Ida Slapter, a drag queen, got up on stage, spread out a plastic sheet, stuck a finger down her throat and shared the contents of her digestive system with an adoring audience. There was the time a guy drank his own urine. There were the Blood Feast parties, where people came dressed up as their favorite slab of meat. There were the Emergency Room parties, where people were issued drug prescriptions that got filled on the spot. And there was the Unnatural Acts revue, where, among other things, a woman made sweet love to a man's artificial leg.
"It's hip to be a mess," Alig told a representative of the press who stopped by to see what all the fuss was about. But don't blame yourself if, after watching Party Monster, you're still wondering what it's about. In some ways, it just seems like a bunch of kids acting like kids. Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who've already made a documentary on the same subject, Party Monster is based on a memoir by James St. James called Disco Bloodbath. Somehow managing to recall all the stuff he did while tripping the light fantastic, St. James took a page out of the Tom Wolfe handbook, using ellipses and italics, bold letters and all-caps, to convey the sheer exuberance of the time, before everybody started putting themselves to sleep with animal tranquilizers. But Bailey and Barbato, making their first feature, don't really have the cinematic chops to translate that exuberance and decadence to the screen. If you ask me, Party Monster ain't much of a party.
And Macaulay Culkin ain't much of a party monster. You can see what Bailey and Barbato were getting at, hiring the Home Alone kid -- innocent, yet evil -- to play a guy who debauched an entire city. By most accounts, Alig was appallingly charismatic. (You never knew if he was going to kiss you or piss on you.) And Culkin certainly looks the part -- those pouty-girl lips, that bratty hair, the deathly pallor of his skin. But after a decade and a half in the business, Culkin still can't act. His attempt to mince words in a stereotypical gay manner is so far off the mark that you get the impression he's never met a real-live homosexual before. Likewise with Seth Green, who plays St. James, the Boswell to Alig's Johnson. Why did these guys take the parts if they weren't willing to go all the way with them? As it is, their characters don't seem capable of all the dirty deeds ascribed to them.
And yet it's all there in the transcripts. Bailey and Barbato round up the usual suspects when it comes time to explain why Alig and at least one accomplice killed Angel Menendez (Wilson Cruz), a drug dealer who went around town sporting a signature pair of wings. Self-defense was one possible motive, which the movie both endorses and dismisses. Drugs may well have played a role, given that everybody was on them. But like all transgressive movies that aren't really transgressive, Party Monster points the biggest finger at...the act of transgression. Alig was used to going too far and getting away with it. How was he supposed to know that killing a guy -- actually, hitting him over the head with a hammer multiple times, attempting to suffocate him with a pillow, injecting him with Drano, leaving him in the bathroom for several days, chopping off his legs and genitals, boxing up the rest and dropping it in the Hudson River -- was crossing the line?
It took nine months for the police to put the cuffs on Alig, during which time he confessed to so many people in so many ways that nobody believed him. That's called irony, and Party Monster could use a little more of the stuff. Instead, it's boringly earnest about how unboringly unearnest everybody was. When Alig surreptitiously pees in a champagne glass and serves it to St. James, who swishes it around in his mouth like...well, like a glass of urine, I had to stifle a yawn. Imagine Sid and Nancy performed by the cast of Fame. That's what Party Monster feels like -- kids trying on their mommy and daddy's black leather jackets. The movie's such a car wreck that some may enjoy it because of all the dents and broken glass -- a Mommy Dearest for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As for the rest of us, we'll just have to face the fact that, when it comes to understanding the monstrous parties of yesteryear, we'll never really know what it was like. You had to be there. I'm glad I wasn't.