The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

It might be a consequence of living in New York (where it takes place, albeit in a very different New York than mine), but Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience unsettled me as much as any movie I saw last year.

Not bad for a barely plotted, mostly improvised, movie about a high-priced escort.

It’s no secret that most movies about prostitution aren’t really about sex, but it is interesting to come across one that isn’t really about intimacy, or even relationships. Instead, it’s about economics. And what’s scarier right now than economics?

Filmed and set during a few days in late October of 2008, The Girlfriend Experience captures the feeling settled over the city in the time just after the financial crisis well and truly blossomed, when we all realized, regardless of our professional proximity to Wall Street, that we were in long-term trouble. More than that, it nails the way in which New York (or most cities, I’d imagine) runs on a combination of money and dreams, and how a disruption in the former messes with the latter.

In The Girlfriend Experience, every character who isn’t rich is chasing self-sufficiency, and are circling those who have the money to make that happen. The characters with money, meanwhile, seem willfully ignorant of the effect they have on the people around them. They’re focused on their own emotional needs.

When the financial crisis starts mucking up the equilibrium of this system, people’s dreams are even more effected than their lives. What’s chilling is the sense that, in the absence of the hope for either upward mobility or “having it all,” there’s very little left except the sense that at some point most of us got sold a bill of goods about what it means to be successful or to be happy. Once those possibilities start disappearing from the table, the question “What now?” seems to echo through the movie.

And “What now?” was a scary question in 2008 that’s only gotten scarier.

The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009

The movie released last year that felt most like last year was Crank 2: High Voltage. I’m serious.

If Up in the Air is an example of what we want a movie that speaks to the current moment to look like, Crank 2 is what such a movie would actually look like.

Yes, Crank 2 is the appallingly violent story of a tough guy who, moments after falling out of a helicopter (at the end of the Crank 1), is peeled off the pavement by a Chinese gangsters who remove his heart and replace it with a shoddy mechanical one. (They need to put in the mechanical heart to keep his other organs viable for harvesting, particularly his penis. Still not kidding.)

And yes, the tough guy’s malfunctioning artificial heart requires him to periodically electrocute himself to keep it running while he’s kicking ass through a bunch of racially specific gangs in search of his original heart. That’s not to mention his Tourette Syndrome afflicted sidekick or stripper girlfriend.

It’s all wildly offensive and racist, but so broad in both that it feel like it’s commenting on crazy action movie violence and stereotypes. Which is a nice way of saying that some audiences will laugh with the jokes while others will laugh at them, and both groups will feel mostly fine about themselves afterwards.

Crank 2 is like a period specific update of Caligula that’s replaced the sex with violence, and the violence with more ridiculous violence. Despite featuring a bushel of porn stars and a herd of boobs, it’s not a bit sexy. That it easily qualified as mainstream entertainment says nearly as much as its story.

The right way to watch Crank 2, copyright-aside, would be on a bootleg DVD, complete with the guy holding the camcorder occasionally talking back to the screen and getting the shakes. It feels practically designed for it. (And it’s basically how the movie was filmed in the first place.)

We live in a Wile E. Coyote world at the moment. We’re constantly being (metaphorically) beaten up and have the nagging suspicion that, though we hope the worst is over, we’re about to find out that there’s only air under our feet. Crank 2 captures that.

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009