Very Bad Guy

"You know, Christ was crucified at age 33," says actor-turned-writer/director Peter Berg, "and they say Buddha came out of the forest and attained enlightenment at 33. It's a critical age for men. I'm 35 now. But when I was 33, I started writing Very Bad Things."

And really: What's 40 days in the desert compared to the exalted male suffering and rebirth in Berg's story of five regular guys whose Las Vegas bachelor party goes the way of the title (and then some)? Sitting in the theater-cum-classroom of his alma mater, Macalester College, and thus feeling "very emotional," the Chicago Hope star describes his ultraviolent screwball comedy as a 33-year-old male's cri de coeur. "I was mad and angry," Berg says softly. "I had a personal relationship break up. Alcohol didn't have the same thrill, sex didn't have the same thrill, drugs didn't have the same thrill. I saw friends whose lives were working well on paper: They're making money, they've got a wife, they've got a kid. The membership at the country club is paid. But they were fucking hookers on the side, they were leaving their wives, they were hitting their wives. Those forces are what drove me to hit the computer keys."

I ask Berg if he's married. "I am married, yeah. Yeah." Long pause. Um--so is it tough balancing your relationship and your career? I inquire, not yet aware of Berg's rumored affair with Madonna. "It's tough balancing life in general," he says. "There are so many primal human shadow forces. Are you familiar with Robert Bly? Um, no, not really. "Well, Robert Bly and Carl Jung are influences of mine: They're from the same school of male-psyche observation. Bly talks about the 'box' that we all drag behind us. We're trying to be good little boys, to do what we're supposed to do, but we got this box full of monsters that we drag behind us. And it comes out one way or another."

Small wonder Berg places his directorial eruption in the oppressed-white-male genre of Deliverance and The Asphalt Jungle--a series he calls "the 'everything-goes-wrong' film." But he also takes pains to type Very Bad Things as a cautionary tale, even as regards race. During Berg's noon address to Mac's theater majors, one student ingeniously inquired about the casting of the Asian-American and African-American actors playing the very bad white guys' first two victims (note to said student--want a job as a freelance film critic?). Recognizing the question, the auteur says the right thing. "Clearly, racism is a problem in this country," Berg tells a student body that he twice refers to as "liberal and progressive." "One of the things I wanted to explore here was white-male dysfunction. Maybe [the very bad white guys] wouldn't have been so cavalier about killing the security guard had he not been black."

Later, without an audience of "liberal and progressive" kids to worry about, Berg tells me that "I didn't want a preachy film. Gary Sinise told me something when he was getting ready to direct Of Mice and Men: He said, 'You know what it's really about? It's about the yarn. Forget the message. Is it a yarn that's gonna hold someone's attention for an hour and a half?'"

Yes, well, that's the trick. And to the extent that the first audience for any studio film is its prospective funders, one shudders to think of the pitch-meetings for this one: Hey, guys--is a hooker's head impaled on a towel rack enough of a hook for you?

Very Bad Things is playing at area theaters.

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