Considering how many weaselly, self-important jerks one meets on an annual basis, it's surprising how rarely you get to see one of them crash and burn. The great gratification of the new movie "Overnight" is that it preserves such a spectacle in the form of a documentary — which is to say that the world-class flame-out it depicts actually happened, to an actual jerk. His name is Troy Duffy, a would-be genius who moved from Boston to Los Angeles to pursue his twin dreams of selling a script he'd written for a movie he wanted to direct, called "The Boondock Saints," and, at the same time, scoring a record deal for his band, the Brood, with which he played guitar. The movie begins in the spring of 1997. The 28-year-old Duffy is working as a bartender at a West Hollywood tavern called J. Sloan's, but his script has been making the rounds, and Harvey Weinstein, the powerful co-founder of Miramax Pictures, has offered him a dream deal for a first-timer: $300,000 for the script; a $15-million budget to make the movie (on which he'll also have final cut); and a soundtrack side-deal for the Brood with Maverick Records.
In an amazing instance of spontaneous inflation, Duffy's head immediately swells up to the size of a small planet, and he turns overnight into a raging egomaniac. "Everybody knows this is the best f---in' project in Hollywood," he rants to his cronies, in between chain-smoking cigarettes, knocking back drinks and bad-mouthing anyone who comes to mind (Keanu Reeves: "a talentless fool"). And it doesn't help that Weinstein — the man who discovered Quentin Tarantino! — has publicly called Duffy "a unique, exciting new voice in American movies," or that he's been written up in USA Today and The Hollywood Reporter, and featured on the cover of MovieMaker magazine. With his own personal film crew in tow to document his rise into the heavens of cinematic legend, Duffy (who has unwisely signed away any control he might have had over the resulting footage) is launched on an ego trip from which he may never return. All of this before he's shot a single foot of film.
Then Harvey Weinstein stops taking his calls, and by the fall of 1997, Miramax has put "The Boondock Saints" into turnaround, meaning the project is up for grabs by any other studio that might want it. None does. And with production continually being pushed back, Maverick Records eventually bails out of the soundtrack deal. (Duffy learns this when he tries to drop by the Maverick offices and is told he's not allowed in the building.) By now, the trade media are starting to look at the bartender-cum-director in a different light (headline: "Back Behind the Bar"). But then an independent production company picks up "The Boondock Saints," and Duffy finds his movie back in play, although on a much-reduced budget. He finally manages to assemble a cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Scottish comic Billy Connolly and porn star Ron Jeremy. Shooting begins in Duffy's hometown of Boston.
In addition to this cinematic resuscitation, the Brood have been offered a recording deal by Lava Records. This prompts the other members of the band, who have essentially been starving ever since they moved out to L.A. at Duffy's behest, to ask him to front them modest loans against the Lava advance money — not cash outright, just loans. Duffy swats them away. "I don't believe you deserve a thing," he tells them. (One of the bandmembers is his own brother.) Problems crop up quickly. Lava chief Jason Flom doesn't like what he's hearing from the Brood's initial sessions. But what does he know? In a meeting with the band, Duffy says that although Lava has put up a quarter-million dollars to make the album, "Look how Jewish they're being about it." In addition, it's been discovered that there's another band called the Brood — an all-girl group from Portland, Maine, that's been putting out records since 1992 — and they have no interest in selling the rights to their name. This doesn't sit well with Duffy (according to "Overnight" co-director Tony Montana, he castigated the rival Brood as "a bunch of talentless f---in' dykes"). But in the end, his Brood is compelled to release its album under another moniker — the Boondock Saints, what else? It sells a total of 690 copies. Lava quickly drops the band, and the band quickly breaks up.
One of the sweetest sequences in the annals of payback is the one in which Duffy and his retinue travel to France in the spring of 1999 to screen the finished "Boondock Saints" for distributors at the Cannes Film Festival. Ensconced in semi-swank digs on his talent agency's tab, Duffy swings wildly between his usual unfounded braggadocio ("I know I'm one of the best there is, and I'm gonna be the best") and — when distribution deals fail to materialize — clueless incomprehension. ("Where's the offer? What's going on?") The movie finally does get released — barely — in January of 2000. It plays for one week in five theaters, dies, and goes straight to video.
Wouldn't it be annoying if "The Boondock Saints" turned out to be a good movie, unjustly ignored? I recently picked it up on DVD (10 bucks), and can report that it's a film that almost certainly wouldn't exist if Quentin Tarantino hadn't made "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" a decade ago. "Boondock" is a vigilante tale pitting two young Irish-American men against all manner of urban scum. In hapless thrall to Tarantino, director Duffy cooks up offbeat forms of torment (a fat mobster gets his butt set on fire) and makes sure that somebody says "f---" about every 20 seconds. Willem Dafoe, who appears not to have been given much in the way of direction, plays a gay FBI agent who listens to opera on his Discman while swanning around bloody crime scenes. There's none of Tarantino's jacked-up pop-cultural fizz to any of this, and none of his snappy way with dialogue. The movie opens with a beautiful color sequence shot in a Catholic church, but quickly begins to drift — you can feel the energy leaking out of it as it stumbles along. But if you stay with it ... well, I don't know what would happen if you stayed with it. I couldn't.
"National Treasure": I'm A Believer
The Knights Templar, an order of military monks founded in the early 12th century, are a colorful plot hook on which to hang a quest story. They are a key element in the third Indiana Jones movie, "The Last Crusade," and of course in Dan Brown's phenomenally popular novel, "The Da Vinci Code." In the years following the end of the First Crusade, the Templars amassed great wealth shepherding European pilgrims to Jerusalem. Accountable only to the Pope, they assembled vast landholdings on the Continent, operated their own fleet of ships, and even acted as bankers, granting enormous loans to spendthrift monarchs. One of these, Philip the Fair, King of France, resented this situation, and in 1307 he arrested all of the Templars he could lay hands on. But when his agents broke into the Knights' treasury, they found ... nothing. The order's fabled trove of riches and antiquities had disappeared. Where did it go?
It's a fun conundrum to fiddle with. The common speculative answer, retailed in such books as "Rosslyn: Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail," is Scotland. But in "National Treasure," the new movie by director Jon Turteltaub and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the Templars' treasure is depicted as having made its way to the United States via the secret society of Freemasons. The Freemasons are often portrayed as descendants of the Knights Templar (a contention that's widely disputed), and since there were some Freemasons among the country's Founding Fathers (check those weird symbols on the back of the U.S. dollar bill!), and since they required great amounts of money to mount their war for independence from England ... well, you get the picture.
Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, the scion of a family that has spent decades tracking the Templars' treasure in the New World. Ben's father (Jon Voight) ultimately gave up the search, concluding bitterly that there was no treasure, only an endless series of silly clues. But Ben still believes, and his quest takes him to the icy wastes of the Arctic Circle in the company of his tech-savvy assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), and a shady British adventurer named Ian Howe (Sean Bean). There they discover yet another clue, this one directing them to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where a map to the treasure is stored — written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. But Ben and Ian have an ugly falling-out, and the rest of the movie becomes a race to see which man can steal the venerable document from the Archives and use it to find the fabled prize.
That the story is preposterous is hardly a drawback in this sort of film; it's an artistic challenge — can the writers and the director lure you into going along with the premise. Turteltaub keeps things moving, and the dialogue is fairly zippy, especially as delivered by Justin Bartha, who has a virtuoso repertoire of goofball facial reactions to go along with it. And Diane Kruger, last seen in "Troy," provides the love interest in a moderately witty way. The codes and the clues and the details of high-stakes thievery are sometimes clever, if not always believable, and the oddments of historical fact, although flung about with an overbearing determination are ... well, kind of interesting. (Did you know Benjamin Franklin wrote a series of letters to a colonial newspaper under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood"? Well, I didn't.)
But the picture doesn't approach the status of a classic — it's no "Raiders of the Lost Ark," as the trailer might seem to promise. Nicolas Cage is a little too low-key and inward to add much dash to the proceedings, and Sean Bean is really too ruddily likeable to contribute much menace. More crucial, though, is the movie's almost complete lack of atmosphere — an unavoidable shortcoming, perhaps, given the narrative requirement that almost all of it be shot in one of the world's most unexotic capital cities, Washington, D.C. The picture is too architecturally tidy and relentlessly sunlit (at least until the end) to suggest any dark, intriguing possibilities. As a clever caper movie, "National Treasure" is serviceable, I suppose. More than that, though, it's not.