Shootin’ Range: Party Monster

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SHOOTIN’ RANGE, a new column from Joshua Fu, takes on one ‘outlier’ film in an actor’s oeuvre and examines how it might or might not exhibit a performance outside their wheelhouse.

“When was the last time you’d heard of a pea changing its pod?”

– Seth Green (as James St. James)

Following the tepid family affair Richie Rich, Macaulay Culkin withdrew from Hollywood for 9 years – only to sashay back onto the scene in 2003 with Party Monster, the somewhat bewildering, darkly-comedic take on the life of Michael Alig, a 1980s New York club kid and party promoter who, as his once-successful career circled the drain, was imprisoned for the 1996 murder of fellow club kid/drug dealer Angel Melendez.

On the surface, Party Monster seems quite out-of-left-field for the otherwise straight-laced Culkin who was once regarded as “tooth-achingly adorable” and “the male Shirley Temple.”  It was either a stroke of brilliance or a completely bat-shit insane idea for the cherubic child actor to portray the murderous, effeminate, and crass Alig.  Who could ever imagine the day they’d see Kevin McCallister bumping Ketamine before forcibly-injecting Drano into the vein of a semi-conscious acquaintance?

Surely, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s grainy-DV indie Party Monster allowed Culkin to buck (dare I say, uncle buck) public perception of the kind of roles he could play and try for something new.  It was a passion project for Culkin; in an interview with the BBC, he describes the tail end of his childhood career as becoming rote and soulless – “Before, I was doing things that I didn’t really want to, and I lost the joy, because it became like a machine. I was being forced to do something I didn’t want to do.”

But the strange thing is that after watching Party Monster, perhaps removed from the shock of its initial release, Michael Alig seems like the natural progression for an actor like Culkin.  Sure, Alig dresses like a queer Hitler (complete with bright blue mustache) and dupes his best friend James St. James into guzzling a champagne flute full of Alig’s own urine… but aren’t these antics perfectly in line with sadistic tricks of Culkin’s Home Alone films?  After setting Joe Pesci’s head on fire and crushing Daniel Stern with a falling Craftsman workbench, who’d really bat an eye at braining some drug dealer with a hammer?

There are echoes of other Culkin roles in Party Monster too – the sadism of The Good Son (Elijah Wood, stay away from Danceteria!) and the friendless, “it’s lonely at the top” themes of Richie Rich

Throughout Party Monster, Culkin maintains his trademarked bouncy boyishness, that cheeky, somewhat devious smile, and the conniving, wily antics of Kevin McCallister.  Maybe Party Monster really is just another Culkin movie, albeit with wall-to-wall 80s house, amorphous sexuality, and a scary cornucopia of drugs.

In the end, Party Monster really isn’t a fantastic movie.  While full of garish costumes and told through an intermittently clever meta-narrative approach, it ultimately boils down to just another Icarus story: a bright young thing, clad in a feather boa and crotch-tight spanky pants, flying too close to the sun.  It’s never clear  what exactly makes Alig so good at throwing parties, and his effete air of I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck kinda sucks all the tension and stakes out of the film.

Despite the shortcomings of Party Monster, and regardless of what you think of  Culkin’s performance, it is clear that he had a good time acting again, telling Alig’s story, and perhaps complicating his previously-vanilla persona.  Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’d rather see a so-so film with a lead who’s enjoying himself than a better film starring some miserable schlub.

Later on in that BBC interview timed to Party Monster’s release, Culkin comes around to his early work:  “When I look back on it, I did truly enjoy doing it. It was just a matter of finding the joy again, and I think I have.”