Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emetic Opera

There are some jobs best left to professionals, and opera writing is certainly one of them. Repo! The Genetic Opera, a gothic-rock musical and midnight-movie hopeful, shows what can happen when a person with no musical talent locks himself in a room with the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Moulin Rouge, and decides, “Hey, I can do that!”

A memo to Repo! “composers” Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich: No, you can’t. And you shouldn’t, forever until the end of time.

No words yet exist to describe how wretched this movie is. It originated as a play by Smith and Zdunich about a graverobber in debt to an organ-repossession man. For some reason, the play was successful enough to be made into this unwatchable movie, an all-singing gore-fest replete with vivisections, oozing intestines and music that, if used to compel terrorist confessions, would violate the Geneva Conventions. Smith and Zdunich seem to have been attempting a theater piece in the manner of Brecht and Weill, but lack any talent for it. Their idea of “opera” is to provide a chugging heavy-metal guitar track, over which the actors perform a tuneless singspiel of breathtaking banality. “I’m infected/by your genetics/that’s what’s expected/when you’re infected.” “Dad I hate you/Go and die.” “Surgery!/Surgery!” After you leave the theater, the effect is hard to shake. You begin to hear every thought sung in this way. “Time to get my laundry done/laundry done!” “Do you think the mail is here/mail is here?”

Brought to you by the producers of Saw and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the movie is about an evil biotech firm, GeneCo, headed by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino — what is he doing here?), which has capitalized on a worldwide epidemic of organ failure by selling transplants on credit. When payments are missed, GeneCo dispatches its killer “organ repo men.” Zdunich plays The Graverobber, a whitefaced Brechtian narrator who comments on the action while harvesting organs and selling intravenous painkillers.

A 17-year-old girl, Shilo (Spy Kids’ Alexa Vega), lives in isolation because she has a rare disease acquired when her doctor father, Nathan (Anthony Head), tried to save her pregnant mom’s life. The man actually responsible for the mother’s death was Rotti, whom the mother jilted. Nathan is secretly a GeneCo repo man whose next target is GeneCo spokeswoman Blind Mag (ex-Lloyd Webber chanteuse Sarah Brightman).

Rotti, who is dying, must contend with his disappointing sons Luigi and Pavi (Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre) and daughter Amber (Paris Hilton), who’s addicted to plastic surgery and painkillers. Rotti lures Shilo, who is desperate to experience the outside world, to The Genetic Opera, a stage show in which all secrets are supposed to be revealed.

This putrescent soap opera is illustrated by scenes of intestines being yanked out of abdomens and musical numbers in musty styles retrieved from the MTV vaults. The Genetic Opera, which should be a fantastically entertaining climax, is dull and dreary, enlivened only by the spectacle of a woman gouging out her eyeballs and getting impaled on a fencepost. There is also a dying-daddy-daughter duet that vaguely mimics real opera. By this point, though, anyone with eyes and ears has already fled the theater.

Visually, the movie is a muddy mess, badly lit and unbearably ugly. The backstory is told with comic-book panels that suggest the movie would have made more sense as a graphic novel, or even as a film using comic-book illustrations, like Persepolis. But then we wouldn’t have the treat of seeing Paris Hilton trying to act and sing.

The film targets young viewers, who may find something entertaining about it, and who don’t insist that songs have such things as melodies. But the movie has no discernible point. Is it a satire about the modern mania for easy credit and plastic surgery? A warning about a future corporate-controlled dystopia? Both, or nothing at all? I suspect the latter.

The main failure of Repo! is that it isn’t the least bit funny. No movie becomes a cult classic without humor, even if it’s unintentional (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Generations wouldn’t have slavishly followed Rocky Horror if it weren’t a fun, silly farce. Repo! hasn’t a whit of wit — and worse, it seems to take itself completely seriously.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene.

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