Under the opening titles of 200 Cigarettes, we hear Bow Wow Wow's near-peerless bubble-gum anthem "I Want Candy." The movie that follows seems designed to satisfy that craving -- it's sweet, tart, brightly colored, insubstantial, and utterly lacking in nutritional value. It's also fun to consume, and harmless enough as long as it isn't your whole diet.
200 Cigarettes is set in New York's East Village during the last hours of 1981. As wall-to-wall late '70s/early '80s fluff crowds the soundtrack, we follow about 20 young people through bars and cabs and coffee shops as they flirt, squabble, bellyache about their rotten love lives, and smoke.
The linking device is that all of them are invited to a party at the apartment of single Monica (Martha Plimpton), but they're all taking their time showing up, lingering in the bars, drinking, and trying to find love. In the case of two high school-age Long Island Lolitas (Gaby Hoffman and Christina Ricci), they're trying simply to find the place; they've come to town on the sly, and they end up in a punk bar, courted by two leather-clad roadies (Guillermo Diaz and Casey Affleck) who may also be drug couriers.
Kevin (Paul Rudd) has recently been dumped by his performance-artist girlfriend, Ellie (Janeane Garofalo), so the prospect of New Year's Eve -- which is also his birthday -- has him cranky and sour. Even so, his friend Lucy (Courtney Love) gamely drags him out for the evening. Scottish painter Eric (Brian McCardie) has an especially rough night -- he gets ditched, then learns from an earlier girlfriend that he's hopelessly inadequate in bed. Actor Jack (Jay Mohr) takes out Cindy (Kate Hudson), his nervous, accident-prone, eager-to-please date from the night before, and gets his ego dazzled when she confesses to him that she was a virgin until he came along. Two friends (Nicole Parker and Angela Featherstone) compete for the same handsome, bumbling bartender (Ben Affleck). A cabbie (Dave Chappele) who hasn't yet acknowledged the fading of disco cruises around, providing advice and commentary Greek chorus-style.
These and two or three other narrative strands are woven together. The running gag is that once in a while we cut from the madcap adventures to Monica, in her nearly empty pad, waiting with her crab dip for the guests to arrive. That's it -- that's the whole movie. It's the cabbie who observes that if you relax, it's possible to have a good time on New Year's Eve, even if you get dogshit on yourself. That's about as close to a message as 200 Cigarettes gets.
But as trivial as the content is, the dialogue, by Shana Larsen, isn't without wit, and every scene is shaped to work toward some point. The debuting director, Risa Bramon Garcia, shows no particular visual flair, but she keeps the pace sprightly and the tone unpretentious and light, and she handles the period details nicely. Last year's The Wedding Singer was a perfectly delightful romantic comedy (much better than 200 Cigarettes) but the element by which it was most heavily marketed, its '80s nostalgia, was its clumsiest and least convincing side. In 200 Cigarettes, the period is also part of a specific cultural milieu -- the New York punk and art scene. The fashions and the pop references aren't flogged to death, so they ring true. And Garcia, a former casting director, gets sharp, funny work from her hot young cast. Nobody's allowed to push too hard, and almost everybody gets at least one moment to shine. There are two standouts, though: the strapping, likable Courtney Love, with tough-girl manners and a tinge of poignancy, and the extremely endearing Kate Hudson. The latter, it turns out, is the daughter of Goldie Hawn, and in terms of style, the beguiling apple hasn't fallen far from the adorable tree.