I took very few notes as I watched Oliver Stone's 'Savages.' I basically have one phrase in large print in the center of the page: “I can't tell if I'm supposed to be taking this seriously.”
It's underlined. Three times.
'Savages' is nothing if not unique. Oh, the basic plot isn't unique - a group of crafty outsiders take on the mob – but the specifics are so peculiar that you'll feel compelled to both applaud and mutter WTF. Often at the same time.
Our story begins with Blake Lively's Ophelia (nicknamed O.) narrating, but refusing to tell whether or not she's doing so from beyond the grave. This one-up on 'Sunset Boulevard' introduces her character as a free spirit in a surprisingly stable three-way affair with ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and botany genius/Good Samaritan Ben (Aaron Johnson.) They all live in a gorgeous home on Laguna Beach and, in a further flashback, we learn that they all work together distributing the world's greatest strain of marijuana.
They've achieved a true happiness, with Chon providing the occasional muscle and Ben gallivanting the globe, using his wealth to build clean water solutions in third world countries. (His Buddhist philosophy paints him as the Steve Jobs of weed.)
Trouble comes, though, when a Mexican cartel headed by Salma Hayek and represented by Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir, demand to be part of their business plan. (Their buds contain 33% THC compared to the average 3 to 5%.) The pair decide (wisely) to just walk away, but before they can skip town their love O. is kidnapped. Now they have to do whatever they're told. Unless they want to fight back.
In terms of plotting, this is when things get really crazy, with double-crosses and violent raids but, to be frank, things are little off from the beginning. 'Savages' loves its hazy montages, be they of aggressive killings or a pictorial symphony of a spoiled girl's trip to the mall. The characters in 'Savages' are constantly smoking pot, despite the fact that nobody ever seems stoned. (They're all thinking clearly! And not shoving pretzels in their mouths!) Almost to make up for this, it is the very film itself which seems to be floating on a major high.
There are odd digressions – like a baffling dinner between Hayek's evil Dona and Lively's twit of a prisoner. Part of me would like to condemn Lively for a wretched performance, but I think that she followed Stone's direction to the letter. He just wanted her to be a . . .weird character. In the very first scenes, as we watch Kitsch's Chon make love to her in a very, um, persistent manner, she compares her blissful orgasms to his nightmare-laden “wargasms.” (Yeah, I know.) Then there are her passionate pleas from her filthy cell for her jailers to provide her with some Mary Jane, posthaste!
'Savages' clocks in at just over two hours but feels like it runs well past three with its myriad reversals and digressions. It reaches such levels of preposterousness that you have only two options: completely check out or buy the whole thing.
I guess I bought it. What can I say, I like watching Benicio Del Toro torture people. Also, John Travolta gives his best performance in years as a sniveling, corrupt cop. I also dug Emile Hirsch, looking like a young Bruce McColloch, as the pair's on-call computer hacker. His cycling outfits and poster that reads “Social Engineering: Because There's No Patch For Human Stupidity” are fine examples of the oddball details found all over this movie.
There are plenty of things to grumble about, though. There are numerous scenes done over a video conferencing program that seems to have functionality I've never seen on Skype or iChat. There are also a few shots where Stone feels compelled to change film stocks. This technique kinda-sorta made sense in the media saturated 'Natural Born Killers,' but here it's just because it looks cool. All it did for me was take me out of the story. There's also the screenwriting faux pas of having a character make a situational comparison to a much better film. (In this case 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.')
All told, when the absurd film finally ended, I was able to put all my eye-rolling aside and say “that was fun.” I still don't know what I was supposed to think – and woe be to whomever approaches this film as a serious discussion on the drug trade – but as a fantasy on economic independence (and sexual progressivism) in a time of recession and “values” politics, you can do a lot worse than to take the trip with these guys.
'Savages' hits theaters on July 6th
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.