America likes to watch. That’s the premise behind John Herzfeld’s “15 Minutes,” the story of two psychopaths looking for the American dream of fame and fortune. With its gratuitous violence and voyeuristic feel, the film relies on the violent scenes it seeks to condemn, sending out a mixed message in a nonetheless captivating and in-your-face package.
After striking a friendship in Prague, Emil and Oleg (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) embark on a voyage to New York, with the immediate intent to collect an overdue payment from an old friend. But when he steals a camcorder on a busy Times Square corner, Emil decides to focus on another ambition, filmmaking.
Declaring himself the next Frank Capra, Emil begins to shoot footage, giving cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier the opportunity to splice “15 Minutes” with Emil’s video clips. Emil, in a far cry from Capracorn, records Oleg killing his debtor and the debtor’s wife. The two continue their spree, gaining inspiration from a popular television talk show hosted by none other than Roseanne, in which victims are confused with criminals. Planning to take the temporary insanity plea if caught, the killers fixate on movie deals and book offers that would make them the most famous killers since Bonnie and Clyde. Their plot puts them up against seasoned detective Eddie Fleming (Robert DeNiro) and arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns). The media, already glued to legendary Eddie’s every move, clamors to cover the manhunt.
The public obsession with fame, violence, and money led Herzfeld to pen “15 Minutes,” essentially a critique of these desires. Emil and Oleg decide to cash in on their 15 minutes, acting on the same motives as any “Survivor.” Their means of becoming celebrities, however, is decidedly more grotesque than downing live worms. Herzfeld extends the ambitions of reality show contestants to huge proportions, creating a scathing if not trite critique of the world’s hunger for brief, profitable stardom.
Emil and Oleg’s twisted ambitions elicit queasiness and disgust — each vision of them is wrought with anticipation and morbid fascination. Escoffier heightens this sensation by once again displaying the talent he showcased in “Nurse Betty.” While “Nurse Betty” used video clips to blend fantasy and reality, “15 Minutes” employs the same technique to spotlight horror.
The video work is unsteady, switching rapidly between focused and blurry, color and gray. At times Emil drenches the screen with shades of red, a gruesome allusion to Oleg’s bloody deeds. This distortion augments Herzfeld’s rather blatant warning against media manipulation. The killers are filming a grotesque reality, but through the amateur lens it feels like an old home video, and the viewers anticipate every action.
Not one to disappoint his viewers, Herzfeld douses scenes with blood and fills the theatre with unnerving screams. He seems downright indulgent, nearly putting himself on the same level as his fatal filmmakers. While it is gratuitous, “15 Minutes” is still wholly watchable, if not fascinating. The film depends on our inability to look away, and indeed we cannot.
Ironically, Herzfeld’s film plays much like the reality shows it would condemn. It succeeds largely because of the same techniques. Well-placed celebrity faces — including David Alan Grier as a thwarted mugger and Charlize Theron as head of an escort service — appeal to our fascination with fame. Lesser-known cast members satisfy voyeuristic desires to see ordinary people in tough situations.
But the key element in making “15 Minutes” a success is the screen presence of Roden and Taktarov. They make the tried-and-true story line of foreigners critiquing another world (think everything from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “Clueless”) come to life. Their transformation from down-on-their-luck immigrants to infamous killers occurs gradually and naturally. Roden and Taktarov provide a believable running commentary on American violence, successfully avoiding the didacticism of Herzfeld’s message.
Herzfeld makes a great impact in the timeliness of his critique. Despite repeated media indictments, news forums consistently focus on the shocking. School shootings, for example, garner hours of prime time and covers of major news magazines. As the Machiavellian host of “Top Story” Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammar) said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
The message of “15 Minutes” is often a bit too obvious, too confrontational. The film thrives on this blatancy, accelerating toward a fast-paced, trigger-happy climax, complete with a media circus. During this escalation, however, the film loses a great deal of credibility, defeating its purpose of exposing the hideous realities of modern media. But Herzfeld does display a genuine passion in conveying the moral of the story, making viewers somewhat forgetful of the fact that they’ve been hit over the head with it.
“15 Minutes” combines social commentary with action, but both are excessive. Surprisingly, it is precisely this excess that makes us keep watching. Perhaps this is where Herzfeld is most successful. While his message may seem trite, its dual conveyance makes a significant impact. First, Herzfeld moralizes, making his characters repeatedly and almost didactically inform us that obsessions with fame are corrupting. Second, and more importantly, Herzfeld makes us succumb to the base desires the film abhors. America does indeed like to watch, even when it knows better.