by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I spent a good chunk of time running a 2000 movie I recorded yesterday from Lifetime, Gossip, which like a lot of the stuff I’ve been watching from Lifetime lately wasn’t made for TV but was actually a theatrical release (the studio credits included such prestigious company names as Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow). It turned out to be a surprisingly good dark thriller centered around three college roommates who are barely hanging on with their studies because they like to do the club scene. As in Noël Coward’s play Design for Living (and the 1933 “pre-Code” Paramount film made from it), one of them is a woman and two of them are men but — at least at first — none of them are involved sexually with each other. The woman, Cathy Jones (played by an odd-looking actress named Lena Headey — she’s easy enough on the eyes one can imagine the male characters being attracted to her even though she looks oddly like the young Bob Dylan in drag), kicks off the film with a voice-over narration in which she says, “I’m a girl with a problem. It’s not like I don’t know better. But I seem to have gotten myself involved a very tempting situation.”
Since we hear this over a shot of her doffing the plain-Jane shirt and jeans she wears to class and donning a provocative top, short dress and high heels, at first we think this is going to be a movie about a female student working her way through college by being a hooker, but no-o-o-o-o, her situation isn’t that bad. The men are avant-garde artist Travis (played by a real avant-garde artist named Norman Reedus) and rich kid Derrick Webb (James Marsden, whom I’d never heard of before even though he apparently had a major role in the X-Men series — which shows how unfamiliar I am with films based on the comic-book Zeitgeist). Derrick’s money has rented them a fabulous, well-appointed loft that practically becomes a character in the film itself. The three are in a class on modern communications being taught by professor Goodwin (Eric Bogosian), and looking for a project that will impress him they decide to start a real-life rumor on campus and see how fast it spreads and how distorted it gets in the telling.
They see their chance at a party when they witness a famously virginal student named Naomi Preston (Kate Hudson) resisting the back-room advances of her boyfriend Beau Edson (Joshua Jackson) — and the rumor they start is that she actually did have sex with her. From the campus grapevine this morphs into a story that Naomi is a slut, that she wears rubber underwear and carries whips to do S/M scenes with her partners, that she likes gang-bangs and — the one that gets the principals into the most trouble — that Naomi passed out at the party but Beau had sex with her anyway, essentially raping her. That one gets taken so seriously that Beau is actually investigated by the cops and arrested. Naomi is persuaded by the cops who interrogate her that since she was drunk and passed out she can’t say for sure that she wasn’t raped, and eventually she comes to believe that she was. When Cathy thinks better of the whole thing and tells the police that it was all a rumor they started on purpose as a class project, she’s told to get the hell out of there and stop impeding the investigation by trying to lie to get a friend off the hook.
Cathy investigates on her own and learns that Naomi was indeed raped — not by Beau, though, and not in college; her actual rape occurred in high school and the rapist was Derrick, whose family’s money got him out of any legal jeopardy but whose social standing at the high school he and Naomi both attended was ruined by the allegation. Derrick, it turns out, never forgave Naomi for ruining his social life at high school, and concocted the rumor plot as a way of ruining her life in revenge — and the writing by Gregory Poirer and Theresa Rebeck and direction by Davis Guggenheim manages to create Derrick as a believably self-centered psycho who dances away from any responsibility and manages to maintain a permanent sense of himself as the aggrieved party. He also believes that he doesn’t have to rape anybody because he can get any woman he wants to yield to him willingly — as he does with Cathy in one sequence as well as with a brunette at the party where he sees Naomi with Beau and decides to set them up.
Naomi is eventually found dead in her apartment, an apparent suicide, after Derrick visited her and had a violent confrontation; the police don’t buy the suicide angle and investigate Derrick as a murderer, and after a last-ditch attempt to frame Travis for Naomi’s killing, Derrick blurts out a confession to the rape but insists he hasn’t killed anybody — and in a dramatic reversal that’s so unbelievable it weakens but doesn’t entirely destroy the credibility of the entire movie, it turns out that Naomi is still alive and she. Cathy, Travis and Goodwin have all been part of a plot to get Derrick to confess to Naomi’s rape, which gets exposed when Derrick supposedly shoots Cathy (he and Travis were struggling and they both reached for the gun … Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again!) and Curtis (Edward James Olmos), the detective in charge of the case, arrests him.
Gossip is a well-done movie, scored with wall-to-wall dance music of just the sort of trendy awfulness these people would listen to (there’s a shock in one scene in which we actually hear a great singer perform a great song — Dusty Springfield’s 1967 recording of “The Look of Love” from the film Casino Royale) and with occasional flashes of overdirection by Guggenheim, who for the most part manages to create a marvelous sense of atmosphere that takes us on a walk through an updated version of the 1940’s noir underworld. The actors are quite well cast; Marsden in particular wears his sense of entitlement the way he wears his clothes, though frankly Norman Reedus did more for me aesthetically and the two even looked rather alike (especially in the scenes in which Marsden was shown with his usually well-coiffed hair disheveled), and Gossip is a literate thriller that — despite that final Sixth Sense-like twist — manages not only to entertain but to make some interesting points about communication and how “truth” is socially constructed; indeed, the film is well-made enough in that department that a real-life equivalent of professor Goodwin might well show it in his class to illustrate his point about how stories spread and how seemingly innocuous rumors can snowball into forms that destroy people’s lives.