Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Language, scenes of Brutal Violence, constant Drug and Alcohol Use and some Sexuality
Directed by: Jefery Levy
Written by: Danny Rubin & Jefery Levy
(based on the novel S.F.W. by Andrew Wellman)
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Busey, Joey Lauren Adams, Pamela Gidley, David Barry Gray, Jack Noseworthy & Richard Portnow
I stumbled across a copy of S.F.W. at a local pawn shop. Having never heard of this movie and being intrigued by the description on the back cover, I threw down three dollars and walked away with the DVD sight unseen. The trailer further peaked my interest and the film’s concept (taken from a novel of the same name) seemed to eerily predict the future of reality stardom. I settled in for what I hoped might be a hidden gem from the mid-90s and, 96 minutes later, I realized why S.F.W. has faded into obscurity. This film has a few positive qualities, but the negative ones overshadow these by a country mile.
On a late night run to buy beer from a convenience store, Cliff Spab (Stephen Dorff) and four other innocent people find themselves held hostage by terrorist group S.P.L.I.T. Image. As 36 days pass by, Cliff’s antics and his blossoming relationship with fellow hostage Wendy Pfister (Reese Witherspoon) become a media sensation as the terrorists leak footage to news outlets. When the situation finally subsides in a violent fashion, Cliff and Wendy find themselves as unwanted celebrities. While Wendy seems content with constant TV interviews, Cliff tries to become nobody again as the media-driven attention becomes a PTSD-fueled nightmare.
S.F.W. (a.k.a. SO FUCKING WHAT) has a few solid moments that showcase just how great this film could have been with a better script and more capable hands behind it. An early scene of Cliff sleeping in a hospital bed, whilst a nurse sneakily snaps a photo of him is something that’s frighteningly relevant in our modern technological age, let alone the mid-90s. Featuring moments like this, S.F.W. seems chillingly prophetic. However, the better scenes frequently give way to an aimless narrative that really doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself. Much like the main character’s “message,” S.F.W. withers into nothingness and fails to leave much of an impact.
S.F.W.’s darker moments, mainly flashbacks set around the violent climax of the hostage crisis that took the life of Cliff’s best friend, are effective enough. I also enjoyed how the film highlights that nobody seems to care about the deceased hostages and, instead, all eyes are on the increasingly distressed Cliff. Again, this is a bit prophetic for the 90s. Just a year after this film’s release, people witnessed a similar media-circus as the O.J. Simpson trial began launching Kardashians into reality stars, whilst the two deceased victims aren’t mentioned nearly as much as they should be.
Like I mentioned before, S.F.W.’s heavy themes and more interesting moments are often forgotten in favor of bottom-of-the-barrel white trash hijinks and an aimless narrative that attempts to retain some sort of meaning without ever fully realizing what it wants to say. This is especially true of an ending that tries to make a huge statement (one that I very well might have agreed with, if it were fleshed out with more skill) and then just sort of cuts to credits. I can think of four specifically useless (long) scenes that might have been deleted in favor for more interesting, intellectually poignant narrative bits.
On the positive end of things, Stephen Dorff and Reese Witherspoon are acting their hearts out, even if the script doesn’t give them a lot of material to work with. For a majority of running time, Reese Witherspoon’s character is reduced to background noise (interviews on various news programs) and brief flashbacks. By the time that Witherspoon and Dorff come face-to-face in the media-filled post-hostage-crisis world, it feels like too little was included far too late.
As far as supporting characters are concerned, Jake Busey is believably scummy as Spab’s hoodlum best friend Morrow. Sadly, this character doesn’t serve much of a purpose. The conclusion of Morrow’s subplot might have been more impactful, if the script had better construction behind it. Sadly, the same thing can be said for intimidating FBI agent Gerald Parsley, played by a well-cast Richard Portnow. Parsley seems like a great character and then he’s fast forgotten. Meanwhile, Edward Wiley and Lela Ivey are ridiculously over-the-top as Cliff’s barely glimpsed money-grubbing parents.
At the very least, S.F.W. lessens the pain of its disappointment by including the tunes of a great 90s soundtrack (including songs by Soundgarden, Marilyn Manson, Radiohead, Cheap Trick, and more). S.F.W. has shadows of a great movie contained within its decent performances, a couple of powerful moments, and eerie ideas that seem to predict society’s obsession with reality stars years before THE TRUMAN SHOW ever existed. However, S.F.W. also gets bogged down by an aimless narrative, constant glimpses of missed potential, and incompetent writing/directing. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing this film remade as a biting satire/dark drama with better talent behind it. In its current form, skip S.F.W.!