The Movie Binge

Review: Bug


There was a time, or so the old-timey CD-ROMs tell me, that film was all but kept alive on the sweats of the brows of the New York literaria. Before God invented screenwriters, He chose to poach playwrights and lure them into His service, buying up their plays wholesale and filming without so much as a tweak to the scene constructions. 'Twas a time when any decent seat-filler of a play could get itself a movie deal — a time that sounds so damn pretty, well, it's a true shame that we don't talk so much anymore. Nowadays, Broadway steals from Hollywood, no longer the vice versa, and the well-regarded plays that do get cineplexy tend to be stinkers (Closer was an Olivier Award-winner; Proof a Pulitzer winner).

So here stands Bug, a movie whose former life was as a successful Off-Broadway play that ran many many months at New York's Barrow Street Theater. Playwright Tracy Letts was permitted to stay on and write the screenplay; he brought with him Michael Shannon, who starred in the Barrow Street run. Why, they've even pulled a couple of oddball casting coups: Harry Connick, Jr., who himself has molded a new career as a Broadway heartthrob after a lengthy run in a Pajama Game revival; Broadway favorite Brian F. O'Byrne in a godforsaken role; and Ashley Judd, who's really good at looking desperate and sad and pretty and like she should be in another movie all at once. At the director stick is William Friedkin, who I'm told directed The Exorcist. That would be really cool, except he also lent his visionary abilities to Jade.

Anyway: Michael Shannon plays a gentleman who doesn't talk much until he goes a little nuts, and he goes a little nuts after hanging out with Ashley Judd for awhile. Ashley Judd has her own issues, mostly that she can't look at empty shopping carts without taking a dramatic pause (something about her missing son, I don't know) and also she's either married or not married to an abusive, sweaty-muscular Harry Connick, Jr., which right there is enough problems for any woman. Oh also she might be a bit of a lesbian, or at least she kisses another lesbian on the mouth a couple of times, and she's also really good at getting abused! So good at it! Over and over and over!

Then there are the bugs, which either do or do not exist, and in fact the bulk of the drama of the playmovie is apparently built on this question. Do we believe this hotel room is infested with blood-feeding aphids somehow spawned out of the unholy union between QuietCrazyEx-ArmyGuy and the comely Ms. Judd OR do we believe that this movie would be a hell of a lot more interesting if there was even the slightest chance that he's not just crazy? Because that's it, you know? He's crazy at the beginning, and he's crazy in the middle, and (SPOILER SPACE) he's crazy at the end, so not once do we even get to rig up a few wires and pulleys to get to that belief-suspicion thing.

All told, it's not even really a horror story, and the whole damn thing almost never switches locations and still rotates firmly around a seam-showing act break. I have little doubt that the play plays better as a play, in a small and dark space where your sound designer can rig up the creepy-crawlies right on your audience's shoulder. At times, you can still hear pockets of lines playing the satisfying cadences they must have played onstage, these friendly little islands of wit and entertainment. You've just got to feel for (longtime Steppenwolf company member!) Letts, whose teeth were clearly cut on the rigors of theatrical pacing, and whose work is now absolutely dead & discredited by virtue of the film's sloppily-composed staging, repetitive insert shots of a rattling air conditioner, and overuse of aluminum foil as set dressing.

Better luck next time, theater.


Having seen the Barrow Street production, I'll tell you that you're correct in your guess that it all worked better on stage -- without all the visual cues screaming 'crazy', there was more ambiguity at work. I mean, you still knew Shannon's character was off from the word go, but you were never sure how far off, especially since everyone was unstable in their own way. It also helped that the theater audience didn't have the issue of marketing saturation, and you had a chance to watch never knowing what if what you were watching was going to turn into a Sam Shepard drama, a paranoid thriller, or a really dark comedy. (Come to think of it, the film would probably have been better off with more of that last one.)

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