Life In The Fast Lane (1998)

Warning: Spoilers Abound! And a lot of rambling from yours truly...

The 90's were a hotbed of quirky sleeper comedies. It was the birth of what we now know as "indie films". Not Independent Films of course. The structural amalgam of 'weird girl meets weird guy and they have a weird time together'. I wrote a whole contrarian essay arguing against my film history professor's assessment that Easy Rider was the first "independent film". I immediately recognized that as a hugely presumptuous statement. While not getting into the semantics of preference, Easy Rider certainly bred a style that would manifest itself in Hollywood for decades. My thoughts immediately went to John Waters and the Kuchar Brothers, and the more I thought about it, I realized that there has likely never been a time without independent film since it's invention. To claim that a trend-setting film usurps everything that influenced it is beyond naive. I won't even get into the immeasurable Cul-de-sac of experimental, pornographic and home movies that exist. Things we will never see. What about guys like Kroger Babb back in the 40's who were responsible for a lot of highly entertaining propaganda films? Does the gimmick lessen it's value? This goes back to the Edison Trust. I would argue that as long as humans have had access to cameras, independent film has existed. But now I have gotten completely off track...

Skip ahead, past the glorious SOV revolution of the 80's, by the time the 90's hit, it was well known that "Indie Films" were highly profitable if they found their audience. Because of this a lot of interesting stuff was sprung from a "what-do-we-have-to-lose?" mentality from the subsidiaries of larger production companies. There was still some corporate shillery abound, but having been an output for so many strange movies, it's easy to forgive. My Mom didn't really share my love for genre films when I was growing up. Because of this I was subjected to a lot of Rom-Coms and sleepers. For better or for worse, we spent the decade renting every stupid charming movie at our local video stores. It still shocks me when I come across something like this, something we totally would have rented if either of us realized it was there. When I encountered this at a recent trek to Salvataion Army, I had to get it. If for nothing else than Fairuza Balk.  While not getting too much further off track, I must mention that Return to Oz was in the trifecta of kids movies I watched over and over again (along with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and the Last Unicorn). I went through an obligatory witchcraft phase in my tweens so it's no surprise that the Craft was also a notable infatuation. Fairuza has a captivating beauty and a tendency to take off-beat roles. I've always liked her and I likely always will. Certainly enough to take a risk on Life in the Fast Lane for a dollar.

The movie is about an "eccentric" artist who is in a sexless relationship with another "eccentric" artist. I use "eccentric" with a tone because like a lot of movies, it feels forced. "Like, we want you to KNOW that these characters are weird, I mean, look at how counter-culture they dress and live and act? LOOK AT THEM". I am looking and I get it. The opening scene has Mona (Fairuza) getting her hair tangled up in a ticking alarm clock so when the alarm goes off she springs from the bed (in slow motion) screaming and running for the scissors to chop off all her hair to a punky 90's pixie cut. Our first impression is that she is impulsive and free spirited - noted. Her "boyfriend" Jeff played by Noah Taylor, approaches her building right as the hair-ensnared alarm clock hits the ground. He picks it up knowingly and walks up to her apartment. He has almost no reaction as we're introduced to their relationship, which is more of a chemistry-less platonic flirtation than a relationship.

She shows him her latest a painting. A morbid depiction of a woman crushed by an angel statue with a minister preaching over her. He apprehensively acknowledges that it's interesting, then she complains that she can't paint anything "happy".

Later that day while walking past a church that seems familiar to her, an angel statue falls off of the steeple, directly above her. She narrowly escapes death at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

Patrick Dempsey with a Wolverine haircut.

This begins a sexual fixation on the stranger. After Dempsey Wolverine saves her, she's lost all interest in Jeff. Which suits me just fine, He's homeless and obsessed with her. What a fucking gem. That relationship was going nowhere and she seemed unfulfilled. If there was some kind of staggering emotional connection between the two of them, it wasn't apparent on screen. Patrick Dempsey may look stupid, but let's see where they're going with this.

Check out that angular silhouette on Dempsey. His Wolverine hair has morphed into a flat-top.

They have a sexual encounter in the church while the Minister listens, played by pervy ol' Jeffrey Jones. Meanwhile, Jeff is painting the town up with his graffiti. The next day he shows up at the pet shop where Mona works and coerces her boss to help him do something really stupid and creepy.

Her boss is played by an almost unnecessary Tea Leoni, who has maybe collectively 3 minutes in the film but is somehow billed over Debi Mazar and is even posed as the STAR of the film on the alternate poster.

Under the original title "There' No Fish Food in Heaven". Less dull but alludes to the ending, which is the only reason I can imagine they would change it. Totally misleading poster.

Though the VHS cover isn't much better. The way Fairuza's head is composited on her body is totally cheap-o. I'm not convinced that is her body actually, I think I'd remember that stupid surf board necklace.

TOTALLY dig the red tape though.

Jeff gets inside a big box and convinces Tea Leoni to drop the box off in front of Mona's apartment. Which is is um, CRAZY, and probably criminal. And also, why not take the box to her apartment and then crawl inside? Why force another person to roll you around on a dolly? Because you're an asshole.

Mona shows up with Dempsey Wolverine, who doesn't speak by the way. He speaks with his eyes. They start fooling around on the box and then this happens...


He kind of had it coming. But we're not rid of him yet. Then his GHOST comes to annoy her. From here on it enters screwball territory with Mona and her pregnant cousin Rosie (Debi Mazar) trying to dump the body, then get the body back, etc, etc.

Brief appearance by Udo Kier. He actually grabbed the fish and made kissy-fish lips at it. I couldn't help by wonder if that was ad-libed. Seems like something he'd throw in the mix

I don't generally get hung up on how people interact in film as a construct. Meaning, social politics are pretty much put aside when I watch movies. It's an open art form. I love sexuality and violence as a subject, sometimes together - usually not. It's kind of open-ended. I don't trope on slashers for being sexist, (though I know it exists and there are plenty of other blogs to give you examples). I'm pretty liberal when it comes to what I can tolerate or what I want to tolerate. It's a completely self-constructed personal set of boundaries that's taken a lifetime to take shape. On that note, there are a few moments in this film that I felt were somewhat damning towards women, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Mona appears to consider Jeff a friend, perhaps a friend she's attracted to and loves in some ways but she doesn't have much of an urge to move forward with him. He's obsessed with her and keeps coming around but she's kept him at an arm's length. When she sleeps with someone who she's actually attracted to, it leads to the accidental murder of Jeff. And if that's not enough, he comes back around to slut-shame her. Constantly reminding her that if she hadn't screwed that guy, this would have never happened. Completely ignoring that he could have NOT sent himself to her in a big box like an insane stalker. Mona is constantly being judged and punished from all sides. Her urges are bad, SHE is bad, so now she suffers. This kind of wrong-thinking at the root of many Rom-Coms is far more dangerous that base level nudity in horror movies. I know I'm totally look too deep into this. I'm sure it wasn't writer/director Eleanor Gaver's intent to create this chastising purgatory for Mona. Or rather, it probably wasn't intended to to appear gender biased. There's a line in it that stuck with me where Mona has just had the encounter with Dempsey and was inspired to paint this big beautiful painting of her apartment and pet fish. She celebrates having finally painted something "Happy" and it coming out exactly how she intended. She follows this statement with... "And it's all because of this guy!". Cringe. Sure, it's ok to be inspired by people or loving feelings but that wording hurt my heart a little. It couldn't possibly be because she's actually a talented painter or maybe because she had a near death experience. It's all linked to the guy.

What's weird about all of this is that after the death of Jeff, Dempsey Wolverine disappears and she realizes that she actually did love him and continues a relationship with Ghost Jeff.

The most favorable scene for me was when she visits her Mom after losing her apartment - apparently randomly at the hands of Dempsey Wolverine - but how and why are never factored in. Nothing special happens in that scene, it's just comforting and sweet like a visit home with Mom would be. I also enjoyed the aesthetic of the house and unexpected sequence where her mom explains what Decoupage is.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw this AMAZING wallpaper.

Seriously the wallpaper of my dreams!

Touches like that really make a movie for me. I didn't realize how many negative things I had to say until I started writing. Which is funny because I actually kind of enjoyed it while watching. I do have issues with "love" being a motivation in films, unless it's done very tastefully. It's often insincere and I have no use for it. Life in the Fast Lane took the unconventional romance approach. While striving to maintain it's "edge", spirals out of control a bit. Seemingly desperate to achieve Black Comedy status. A Rom-Com by any other name....

And then there's a random S&M club scene. What was with the 90's fascination with goth clubs and raves? When I reached my college years without having ever been to ONE vampire night club, I felt cheated out of a right of passage according to every trendoid youth culture movie I'd ever seen.

Life in the Fast Lane is straight out of Quirksville. A place where it was still acceptable to wear clogs and where Manic Pixies run rampant like wild buffalo. It's a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. It's like when Friends first aired, they were supposed to be "Hip" and "Young". Everything was so on point. The haircuts, the coffee shop, the quasi-intellectual conversations about how interesting they all are. It was an self-fellating look at how 20-somethings were at the time. THAT is Quirksville.

I feel that I've come full circle with this bristly eruption of words. It's not a great movie but it was fun to watch, and that's all I ask. At the end of the day it's good to just bide your expectations and let things be what they are. I don't hate it, I just wish it had aspired for more. On a superficial level, I enjoyed the color palette, the soundtrack and Fairuza being gorgeous. Those things are enough to keep anyone watching. The ending takes place on Thanksgiving, which is just perfect. I love keeping it seasonal. A brief visit in Quirksville right before the holidays

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