11 MAY 2002, Page 49

Slackers (15, selected cinemas)

Baring all

Mark Steyn

Ihaven't given a thought to Mamie Van Doren since ... Well, actually, I've never given a thought to Mamie Van Doren, but, if I had, it wouldn't have been since about 1958, back when she was the queen of the Z-movies — not the poor man's Marilyn Monroe, but certainly the poor man's Jayne Mansfield. Pin-up gal Mamie was a

featured player — that's to say, a player on the strength of her, ah, features – in High School Confidential, hilarious in its attempt to be cool; and Sex Kittens Go To College, which, alas, doesn't live up to its title: and Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt, which doesn't either.

What's she been doing these last 40 years? Who knows? But she's 71 now and is the main point of interest, in every sense, in Slackers, the latest gross-out teen-comedy now that the guys who did American Pie have moved on to earnest, life-enhancing personal-growth experiences like About A Boy. Anyway, in Slackers, Mamie Van Doren plays an elderly hospitalised hooker who bares her breasts and requests a sponge bath of them from the movie's horny, nerdy protagonist, 'Cool Ethan'. Unfortunately, the girl he's really after, Angela, walks in on him as he's suckling Mamie.

Incidentally, the title Slackers refers to a type of young person not to Miss Van Doren's breasts, which seem to be bigger than they were in the Fifties and somewhat frecklier. Jason Schwartzman, who plays Ethan, has been going around giving interviews in which he says Miss Van Doren had a lot of body make-up on: 'Later on, at lunch, I had this . thick film on my teeth.' he says. 'I couldn't taste any food.' His co-star, the Pearl Harbor hottie with the boyish handle James King, wisely keeps her bra on, so the only hooters on display in this film are septuagenarian. 'On the day when I saw Slackers,' wrote Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics, 'there were many things I expected and even wanted to see in a movie, but I confess Mamie Van Doren's breasts were not among them.' On the other hand, presumably there are those who wake up and think 'You know, I wonder what Mamie Van Doren's breasts are doing these days,' and, if you're one of them, then this is the film for you.

Aside from catering to that latterly neglected demographic, Slackers is notable chiefly for its ineptness. It is not to be confused with Richard Linklater's singular Slacker (1991), an agreeably meandering slice of life from Austin, Texas. This time round, the slackers are Sam, Jeff and Dave,

three college seniors who've cheated their way through their entire time at Holden University (a little Catcher in the Rye hornmage presumably). Indeed, they've gone to more trouble to cheat than it would have taken to learn the stuff. Unfortunately, the monobrowed dork Ethan threatens to lower the boom on them unless they help him win the hand of the lovely Angela (Miss King). That's it, that's the plot. And it's a measure of Dewey Nicks's plonking incompetence that he's unable to direct even this slender, straightforward thread with anything approaching minimal efficiency.

Ever since There's Something About Mary, industry experts have pondered the question, 'Whither the gross-out comedy?' What Nicks has overlooked about Mary is that grossness is only gross if it occurs within conventional societal behaviour. In Mary's seminal 'hair gel' scene, for example, Ben Stiller has been inveigled into masturbating by his friend (for reasons of psychological health) and Cameron Diaz genuinely thinks the 'hair gel' is just that. Thus, for Stiller, the moment is a classic piece of traditional comedy of embarrassment, and, for Diaz, it's consonant with her character's goofy unknowingness. If it was just a masturbatory guy and a gal who liked using men's ejaculate for hair gel, there would be no joke. That's the error Nicks has made: he's wound up with a gross-out comedy that's all-gross and no comedy. Nicks's characters are intentionally gross: this guy sings a duet with the sock puppet on his penis, that gal carries on masturbating while a perfect stranger's in the room. Ethan gets sexually serviced by Angela's mom — Leigh Taylor-Young, last seen in TV's Peyton Place — and the incident has no repercussions for his relationship with her daughter.

Nicks doesn't even know how to score the picture. In Mary, the 'hair gel' build-up is accompanied by an instrumental rendering of the 'Chanson Bohemienne' from Bizet's Carmen, best known to American audiences by its Oscar Hammerstein lyric, 'Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum'. Nicks picks up on the fact that there's a musical joke here, but doesn't quite know what it is, and so decorates his flatulence gags with laboured ironic orchestral renderings of old rock songs, which is just plain annoying.

The only impressive thing about Dewey Nicks is his Rolodex. Never mind Leigh and Mamie, what are Gina Gershon and Cameron Diaz doing in this picture? Come to that, what's Jason Schwartzman doing in it? He was so good in Wes Anderson's Rushmore, he's so pitiful here, his quirky charm obliterated in a great gaseous mass of feeble fart jokes. Slackers flopped in America: gross, but no grosses. For Leigh Taylor-Young's cameo, think The Graduate with no complications. For Mamie Van Doren's, think Harold and Maude with no humanity. For the whole picture, think American Pie with no laughs.