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15 Minutes   C+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Herzfeld
Writer: John Herzfeld
Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Burns, Kelsey Grammer, Karel Roden, Oleg Taktarov, Melina Kanakaredes, Avery Brooks, Charlize Theron, Vera Farmiga, David Allan Grier, Kim Cattrall.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's something to be said for passion in a filmmaker. The tendency for an audience to turn off their brains and enjoy some mindless entertainment certainly does no harm, but it's nice to be shocked out of our complacency once in a while. 15 Minutes tries very hard to be that sort of film: a ruthless diatribe against our blood-soaked fame-driven culture. Unfortunately, it never succeeds in its appointed task, but you can't help but admire the feeling behind it -- the genuine desire to make an important point.

15 Minutes suffers from the fact that this important point is hardly new. The lust for fame and the Faustian connection between violence and the media have been the subject for dozens of motion pictures, most better than this one. Director John Herzfeld hurts his cause by painting his canvas too broadly, using overly simplistic logic to make his well-worn arguments. Watching it reminds one of superior takes on the subject (such as Network or To Die For), which can't help but blunt its purpose. Surprisingly enough, however, it works more often than it should due to the periodic bursts of sharp, palpable anger that lance through it like knives. At times, 15 Minutes runs solely on pure bile as it gazes contemptuously out at the junkyard of TV culture and the horrendous excesses to which people will go to belong to it. If it only focused that anger more clearly, it could have become a masterpiece. As it is, it's merely uneven, with bursts of brilliance poking out through an overall malaise.

The subjects here are a pair of Eastern European lowlifes, Emil (Karl Roden) and Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), who come to New York in search of some illicit money. Almost by accident, they hatch a monstrous scheme to film themselves committing murder, then sell the tape to tabloid TV (represented by Kelsey Grammer's sleazy celebrity-journalist) and use their instant fame to avoid punishment. Ten years ago, such a notion would have elicited preposterous giggles. Now, we can only nod cynically at their perverse logic. After their initial killing spree, they pick up a pair of pursuers who embody opposite ends of the media machine: Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro), a celebrity cop who uses his fame to make catching bad guys easier, and Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), an anonymous fire inspector whose work ethic is as strong as his disdain for television's chum hole. Their pursuit of Emil and Oleg is both aided and hindered by the constant presence of the cameras.

While its primary target is the media, 15 Minutes uses its cops-and-robbers formula to attack a variety of social trends. America's appalling lack of accountability -- no one need accept responsibility for their actions as long as a psychiatrist or lawyer can find a scapegoat -- receives repeated doses of vitriol, as does our willingness to show the rest of the world the worst in ourselves. Emil and Oleg get all of their information about America from exported television, and their scary views find fertile breeding ground in the low-rent talk shows and abysmal reality specials they devour.

Unfortunately, the film can't always resist the very simplicity that it finds so detestable. Many of the characters fall into pat stereotypes (with good guys and bad guys clearly defined), and the story descends into clichéd moralizing far too often for comfort. Gaping plot holes crop up (Warsaw is accused of brutality by a man who couldn't possibly know his name), and Herzfeld can't resist the gaudy display of cheap theatrics to punctuate the drama. Such pandering bears remarkable similarities to the sensationalism it detests so much, which severely undermines its potency.

And yet, here and there, something very powerful comes out -- a sense of genuine outrage at how far we as a society have fallen. 15 Minutes has the courage to bare its fangs when necessary, keeping our attention and reminding us of the very real issues it wants to confront. Herzfeld's anger finds a strong outlet in Burns, who watches the circus grow with teeth-grinding frustration. The remainder of the cast resonates strongly (no film that has Robert De Niro performing into a mirror can be all bad), and the film even creates some fairly impressive action sequences amid all the sermonizing. None of that quite manages to overcome the flaws, but the effort involved elicits admiration despite the shortcomings.

15 Minutes has a core of brilliance which never quite emerges from the forgettable baggage attached to it. We see it just often enough to give us hope, but never get a clear enough view to truly appreciate it. So eager is this film to grapple with its demons, that it doesn't realize how much like them it has become. With another subject, we might be able to forget such mistakes, but too many other films have made the same points better than 15 Minutes does. Make no mistake, it has its heart in the right place; it's a pity we couldn't see more of it amid the junkyard.

Review published 03.12.2001.

For another opinion, read Jeremiah Kipp's review.

IMDb | buy it at Amazon.com

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