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by Jim Wunderle


Directed by: Mark Christopher

Starring: Mike Myers, Salma Hayek, Ryan Phillippe

Rated: R

In a year of monumentally bad movies ("Armageddon," "The Avengers") Mark Christopher's "54" ranks among the worst.

It's not because of the subject matter some people actually enjoy the vicarious thrills and ills offered by portrayals of decadent debauchery. "Boogie Nights" and "Trainspotting" are two recent films that come to mind.

It's not because disco music really does suck "Saturday Night Fever," which came out at the height of the disco craze, proved that this was a viable form of popular music and also showed there were a lot of interesting stories to be told about the club culture of the late 1970s.

No, "54" is bad because it's quite simply a textbook example of poor writing, uninspired acting and, most of all, rotten direction.

First-time director Mark Christopher (who wrote the screenplay, as well) spent six years gathering research for this project, yet presents us with a piece that fails to capture the seediness and glitz of the club scene that defined an era.

Studio 54, at the end of the 1970s, was the place to be if you fancied New York City nightlife. Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and even a young Tatum O'Neal tagging along with her dad were regulars.

The champagne and cocaine flowed freely, and in these last years before the AIDS era began, carefree casual sex was the most popular pastime.

Club owner Steve Rubell was a cultural icon of the disco scene, and his Studio 54 was a mecca for the decadent. Early in the evening, lines would begin forming outside of the place, and Rubell himself would hand-pick the people deemed worthy of making the scene.

From all accounts (there's a great article in the August issue of Premiere with lots of quotes from people who were actually there), Studio 54 was a nonstop party from its opening in 1977 until 1979, when the IRS shut the place down and sent Steve Rubell to jail for blatant tax evasion, profit skimming and general drug-induced stupidity.

To be fair, though, it should be said that it's just about impossible to find anyone who will say an unkind word about party-meister Rubell. (It must be a case of "Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone ...") Without a doubt, there's a compelling story to be told here, it's just a shame that Mark Christopher fails to tell it.

The plot Christopher chooses to put at the core of "54" is a shameless rewrite of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Boogie Nights." Shane O'Shea (Ryan Phillippe) is a working-class kid from New Jersey who dreams of crossing that big three-mile stretch and making the scene in Manhattan. After successfully getting admitted to Studio 54, and catching the fancy of Rubell, Shane finds himself working at the club.

He advances quickly (so quickly, in fact, that any dramatic tension is all but lost) and becomes immersed in the swinging eternal party of the club. He meets a fellow Jersey kid, a beautiful soap opera actress who embodies all the things Shane dreams of, but he soon sees the ugly truth of what people will do to "make it."

After becoming disillusioned with his dream girl, Shane witnesses the inevitable fall of the Rubell empire. Coke-fueled Steve makes the rounds of every major talk show and blatantly brags about how much money he's making and how the government might not know just how much that figure is.

Well, in case you didn't know, IRS agents watch TV, too, and the public airwaves aren't exactly the best place to flaunt your disregard for the prevailing laws of the land.

The IRS closes down Studio 54, seizes its contents and sends Rubell, along with a few of his cohorts, to the pen. Shane, of course, learns a valuable lesson.

If you want a better portrayal of the disco scene, rent "Saturday Night Fever." If you want a better portrayal of a young man trying to make it in a seedy industry, try "Boogie Nights."

Finally, if you want a sense of the hopeless despair of hanging out in a "bar scene," watch Barbet Schroeder's account of the life of author Charles Bukowski, "Barfly."

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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