You’d have to be an awful shot to miss an obvious target like the media. There’s so much from which to choose. There’s the rush to judgment (otherwise known as news analysis and commentary). One could harp on the obsession with images: If a tree falls in the forest and no camera records it, did it really fall? How about blaming negativity on the public (giving the public what it wants) without actually offering other alternatives? Then there’s celebrity stalking, story manipulation, anchor arrogance, invasion of privacy, bad math skills the list can go on and on.
So does “15 Minutes,” but its attempts to take aim at tabloid culture ends up a hideous mess. That’s quite an accomplishment, and not just because director and writer John Herzfeld manages to miss the broad side of a media barn. He also extracts fine performances from a solid cast and fritters them away.
Using the conceit of Andy Warhol’s now dog-tired reference to an individual’s allotted time of fame, the action thriller follows the crime spree of Czechoslovakian convict and sociopath Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) and his Russian friend Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov). Despite hints at Slovak’s unstable core, the twosome start off as a comical odd couple. Razgul has long envisioned the United States through the lens of Frank Capra. Even as he raptly walks around the real thing, he cannot resist stealing a camera to see America the way he saw it in Russia.
The journey, though, has been made to reclaim some stolen loot, and when Roden finds his friends have spent the money, he kills them in a frenzy while Razgul documents everything on video. Throughout all of this, there’s a witness. Daphne Handlova (Vera Farmiga), borrowing the use of the shower facilities, escapes in a clatter (even though she has managed to do her ablutions silently before the gruesome murders), leaving all her identification behind.
Razgul sets the apartment on fire, which brings in both New York City homicide detective and media darling Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro) and fire marshal investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns). After a minor squabble over crime scenes and jurisdiction, the two largely cooperate in what becomes a crime spree as Slovak tries to track down Handlova, with Razgul recording every step of the way.
The spree spirals out of control when the two Eastern Europeans get an instant lesson in American pop psychology and criminal law through watching daytime television. By taking refuge in insanity, Slovak reasons, a criminal can achieve fame and fortune as long as the offense is spectacular and there’s video.
Throughout “15 Minutes,” truly comic exchanges and tender moments pop up in between viciously violent scenes. Unfortunately, these jarring shifts aren’t a daring, deliberate clash of genres, as they’re meant to be, but result in a lumpy, unappetizing mix. Part of it is owed to the mishmash pacing, speeded up and then tediously drawn out. And while “15 Minutes” preaches about media hounds who relish the scent of blood, it doesn’t hesitate to show a slashed-up naked woman at least twice.
Speaking of the object of the film’s condemnation, the journalists are unbelievable not because of their extreme behavior, but because they’re not extreme enough. Robert Dawkins (Kelsey Grammer), host of “Top Show” kind of a hybrid of “Inside Edition,” “Most Dangerous Videos” and the most self-serving “Dateline” episodes establishes his repugnancy during an argument with “journalism cop” Cassandra (Kim Cattrall). It’s hard to say which one spouts the most tiresome clichs: Dawkins, who avers, “If it bleeds, it leads,” or Cassandra, screeching, “I want to broaden the journalism content!”
This ludicrous exchange doesn’t resonate as truly outrageous exchanges overheard in a real newsroom might. Instead, it sounds like Herzfeld did all his research by watching movies about journalists, and that’s the ironic, fatal flaw in “15 Minutes”: It’s just plain derivative. We don’t get the insider peek, but the group tour of regurgitated headlines (“We’re all concerned with violence in prime time”). The closest Herzfeld gets to something like “Wag the Dog” is Warsaw’s gratuitous pet dachshund.
That’s the creative stumbling block of trying to lump the media into one monolithic institution. Instead of putting forth incisive satire, you start sounding like a conspiracy kook.
It doesn’t help that the implausible details and inconsistencies start to add up into one big aggravation, such as the way everyone tramps around the arson crime scene. A prostitute demands several times that Slovak show her the money first, but turns her back on him and undresses before he brings out the cash. In one extended sequence, it looks like Warsaw’s gun switches from a Smith & Wesson to a Kahr to a Glock. Most egregious is seasoned detective Flemming’s rookie mistake in home security.
That this movie isn’t a complete write-off is due entirely to the actors’ admirable sincerity in their roles, no matter how unconvincing those characters ultimately turn out to be. As it is, at two hours, “15 Minutes” seems eight times too long.