Remember back in the 1970’s when directors like Costa-Gavras and Sidney Lumet made IMPORTANT movies about IMPORTANT topics? “15 Minutes” is not one of those films despite the apparent ambition and delusions of writer/director John Herzfeld. With a title like that, what could possibly be his IMPORTANT subject? As the picture’s length is closer to two hours, I can only guess it has something to do with the idea that “everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame.” Having previously directed a TV film about the Amy Fisher scandal, Herzfeld is here to inform the masses about the way the idiot box and public perception change our world.
Now in the author’s world you have one famous man in need of sensationalistic material, TV tabloid show anchor Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer). Then you have a man involved in a lot of sensationalistic stuff who wants to be famous, New York Police Detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro). Somehow these two find a way to further both of their careers.
One day, a pair of violent psychopaths hit town soon after their release from a Czechoslovakian prison. One of them, Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov), steals a video camera to make his great American movie. The other, Emil Slovak (Karel Roden), seems compelled to leave a path of death and destruction in his wake. Somehow, these two also find a way to work together. Oleg films every act of violence committed by Emil. Seem like a bad idea? Not to worry, Emil has a plan. When not destroying people’s lives, he’s been watching trashy talk shows and tabloid television news programs like the one that employs Hawkins. Emil comes to the conclusion that in America, no one really needs to be held responsible for their actions. After viewing a serial killer win an “innocent due to insanity” verdict, he knows what to do. First, he sells one of his murder tapes to a tabloid show (Gee, I wonder which one?). Then, after he’s captured, he’ll have enough cash to hire the same lawyer to sell Emil’s own insanity plea. Once in the nuthouse, he’ll miraculously get much better and go free. Of course the only things standing in his way are Eddie and Jody Warsaw (Edward Burns), a hot-tempered Fire Marshall investigating the fires Emil occasionally sets. Standing in Jody’s way is his utter ignorance concerning publicity, public opinion, and apparently law enforcement. Of course Eddie takes the short-fused fireman under his wing to teach him everything he needs to know. It’s going to be a painful lesson, nearly as painful as Ed Burn’s performance over the length of this film, which feels closer to 15 hours.
Now, I’m sure this kind of picture would have been totally cutting edge about 20 years ago. At that point it might have at least had a freshness that could have glossed over some of the movie’s more glaring problems. What are they? Let’s start with Emil’s brilliant plan. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall that after John Hinkley received a verdict of ” not guilty by reason of insanity” shooting then-President Reagan, the public outcry led to a change in the laws. Due to changes such a possible verdict of “guilty but mentally ill,” I can’t really recall the last high profile criminal who successfully pleaded the insanity defense and had any hope of release from jail and/or an asylum. Hell, it doesn’t look like Hinkley will be moving back into his parents’ house anytime soon, either.
Actually, the crazy one seems to be Fire Marshall Jody. Near as I can tell, his understanding of law enforcement seems to be totally derived from late-night reruns of “Crime Story”. He’s a little murky when it comes to that whole Miranda thing. The film attempts to portray him as some kind of rugged, manly loner type. As portrayed by Ed Burns he’s primarily an unsympathetic a*****e. Not that the script is any help. The only conceivable reason that De Niro’s Eddie would ever let a Fire Marshall ride shotgun on such a high-profile case is because it says so in the script. If there’s a scene in there where they share some kind of big bonding moment, or explains why the arson investigator is so hell-bent on career suicide, it never made it into the final product. I couldn’t even tell you whether Jody knows how to competently deal with anything that was not at some point set on fire.
Yeah, I know. It’s easy to get worked up over all the crap on television. Reality TV is currently at its height. HOWEVER, the “15 minutes” phenomena is now basically an accepted element of our culture, and tabloid shows and the insanity plea (hell, even serial killers other than “Hannibal”) have fallen out of fashion in America. Herzfeld shouldn’t quite so smugly condemn the U.S. as tabloid programming that is often much worse than ours is broadcast around the globe. A couple of Eastern Block lowlifes would neither come to this country so innocent of our damned media ways or immediately develop the media savvy of the average William Morris agent. Either a more realistic or satirical take on events probably could have yielded a more current and resonant exploration of society. Instead, Herzfeld employs cheap theatrics and righteous indignation to amplify a tired message already beaten into an audience pummeled by his wooden characterizations. At least we now have another film to put on the shelf next to “Pay It Forward” to fill out our box set of crappy, heavy-handed Republican fairy tales. Think about what they’re telling you. That Haley Joel Osment vehicle basically says, “Government endowments bad, personal charity and trickle-down theory good.” The more current mess teaches us, “immigrants, media, and soft liberal democrat-tainted legal system BAD.” Each seems to have begun with some BIG THOUGHT and pieces of a real movie were lightly sprinkled around it like garnish. Each sacrifices a character’s life to that BIG THOUGHT in a cynical attempt to endow it with greater significance. The lack of honesty on nearly every level leaves it with none.