With the possible exception of American Vice-President Dan Quayle, in the past year no celebrity has provided a greater target for stand-up comedy than Rob Lowe. Bootleg excerpts of Lowe’s infamous home video documenting his sexual escapade with two girls in Atlanta—one of them underage—spread like wild-fire. And so did the jokes. The most obvious one: “Finally, a Rob Lowe picture that people want to see!” Now, there is another Rob Lowe picture that people may want to see, and for many of the same reasons. Titled Bad Influence, it is a lean, cold-blooded thriller in which Lowe plays a womanizing psychopath whose exploits include the use of a home-made sex video to humiliate a friend. And, as if that irony were not perverse enough for one movie,
Lowe’s costar is James Spader, who portrayed an impotent video voyeur in the 1989 hit sex, lies and videotape.
Once again, the subject is sex, lies and videotape. But Bad Influence is not nearly as sexy, likable or intelligent as Spader’s previous movie. It is a contrived cautionary tale that warns yuppies about the dangers of taking candy from strangers. Lowe plays an amoral villain named Alex,
who befriends—and corrupts—a good-natured market analyst named Michael (Spader). The story casts Lowe in some uncannily familiar poses. In one scene, Alex embarrasses his new friend by showing a video of Michael making love with a woman (Lisa Zane) they have picked up in a bar. Another scene shows Alex having sex with two women at once.
Such episodes resonate so clearly with Lowe’s own misadventures that it seems as if the actor is undergoing some sort of public penance, a strange form of Hollywood therapy. But the strangest fact about Bad Influence is that the script was written and Lowe was cast four months before the Atlanta sex-video scan-
dal turned his name into a household joke. That makes the movie eerily prescient. The actual filming took place after the scandal, while the Rob Lowe jokes were making the rounds. All in all, the crosscurrents of coincidence and complicity make a shallow thriller more resonant— and creepy—than it would otherwise be.
From his first appearance in Bad Influence,
Lowe puts a jagged edge on his pretty-boy image. Meeting Michael at a beach-front bar in Los Angeles, Alex smashes a bottle and uses it to ward off a bully who is threatening Michael. A male version of a damsel in distress, Michael is grateful. But the handsome stranger disappears. And so does Michael’s wallet. When he runs into Alex again, apparently by chance, they strike up an instant friendship and go for the first of many drinks. Alex takes him to a bar where clients need a password from the personal ads—“dominant athletic woman”—to get past the doorman. And Michael is thrilled to enter Alex’s world of free cocaine and easy sex.
At first, Alex’s influence does not seem so
bad. He persuades Michael to take appropriate revenge on a co-worker who has been trying to sabotage his chances for promotion. And even when Michael betrays his fiancée for a party girl procured by Alex, the crime seems innocuous enough. The fiancée was a bore, and Michael is probably better off not marrying someone who treats her wedding date like a lunch appointment. “October might not be good for me,” she tells Michael. “How’s November for you?”
It is bracing to see the upwardly mobile Michael breaking out of his yuppie cocoon. But illicit sex and sneaky office politics lead to harder stuff—including robbery and murder. Like a man-to-man version of Fatal Attraction, which dramatized the consequences of adultery, Bad Influence presents a worst-case scenario of what can happen when the boys get together and have too much fun. It plays on the darkest yuppie fears. The nightmare begins with the loss of a wallet and builds to Michael’s return home one night to an apartment stripped bare of all its furniture. Michael can write off the loss of a fiancée, but possessions are another story. His career is the most precious possession of all. And by the time his longsuffering secretary tells him that she is fed up, it is clear that Michael (who has been asking her to call him Mick) has gone too far.
His tempter turns out to be truly evil. The motives for Alex’s actions are never explained—like the devil, he just shows up. Playing the devil requires wit, intelligence and style. Jack Nicholson is very good at it; Rob Lowe is not. As Michael, Spader gives a convincing performance, built on layers of shyness and candor. But he seems to be acting in a vacuum. Michael’s older brother, Pismo (Christian Clemenson), is the only character who really engages him. Pismo is an unemployed pothead videotape whom Michael treats with scorn and who later becomes
a nervous ally in Michael’s bid to shake off Alex.
American director Curtis Hanson manipulates the story from a cool distance. His camera seems more interested in the apartments—all bone-white and open-concept—than in the characters. And he is stuck with a designer villain. After running the gauntlet for his indiscretions, Lowe may have brought an element of reality to his role. But if Bad Influence is any indication, it is frightening to consider how far he would have to go in real life to create a truly compelling villain on screen.
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