In Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the monologist Eric Bogosian, appearing on a mostly bare stage in Boston’s Wilbur Theater, creates 10 vividly diverse characters. The facility with which he leaps from one to the next — from crotchety New York street person to narcissistic rock star, from complacent suburban consumer to impoverished, self-loathing urban lunatic — is so staggering that his chameleonic brilliance practically becomes the subject of the movie. Beneath his aureole of shiny black curls, Bogosian’s big, dark, soulful Armenian eyes give off a reptilian gleam. He’s an electrifying performer, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is hypercharged. It courses along on volts of voyeuristic intensity — on the dark, private energy of a man who understands people because he has spent his life studying them. Yet for all of Bogosian’s talent, this startling, ferocious, and frequently hilarious movie has a weird hole at its center.
Like Bogosian’s three previous one-man shows, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll isn’t simply a satirical portrait of life in the U.S. It’s a didactic, accusatory critique. What Bogosian is here to tell us is that America is a collection of hypocrites, dum-dums, crazies, and addicts. Who, you and me? No, those other Americans — the morons, the ones out there. Bogosian has spent most of his career as a Manhattan performance artist, and his act is pitched to the class prejudices of East Coast audiences. He creates a fantasy of mainstream America as a land of vulgarians and losers. As a satirist, Bogosian has some eye-opening perceptions; he’s trying to capture the frantic unreality of a culture in which the quest for sensation has become just another drug. I suspect he’s drawn to negative characters mostly because they fuel his showman’s juices. Nevertheless, he comes off as a bit of a snob.
Stitched together from nine live performances last December, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll was directed by John McNaughton, who made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There are no frills or backstage scenes, and not much in the way of camera tricks. Mostly, it’s just Bogosian in his black jeans and plain oxford shirt, spinning character after character out of his observational gifts. A drawling urban cowboy brags about picking up any woman he wants, all because he’s hugely endowed. A hostile executive with a cellular phone glued to his ear suddenly turns cuddly when his mistress comes on the line. He tells her he loves her, really loves her — all the while demonstrating his ardor by picking fuzz out of the carpet. An impossibly dense neighborhood goombah, breaking into spasms of stupido laughter, recalls his friend’s bachelor party, a drink-toke-snort-and-puke-athon that lasted till dawn. It was party heaven, man, the best time of his life — at least, until he does it again next week.
Bogosian, who conceives and writes his own material, appears to have a photographic memory for behavioral traits. He doesn’t just do voices, postures, facial expressions. He gets people’s rhythms, their slang and style, and, more than that, their egos — the self-justifying logic that defines their , relationship to the world. He comes close to jumping into their skins. Yet it’s only to assassinate them. For all his empathic powers, Bogosian never allows us to feel a kinship with his characters, the way that Lily Tomlin does (and she can be every bit as biting). After a few sketches, the movie settles into a predictable rhythm: Here’s another lout — what’s his flaw?
Ironically, the funniest bit is the one that isn’t about an American. Bogosian, all smiles and leers, impersonates a smug British rock star appearing on a talk show. This veteran of hedonistic excess recalls how he did drugs every day, all day long, for five years. He then had a mystical experience while listening to Phil Donahue, gave up drugs, and is now doing a benefit for the Amazon Indians. Yet all he really wants to talk about is drugs. The character is like a cross between Sting at his most precious and one of the metal-head-in-the-clouds morons from This Is Spinal Tap. Even in his new, older-and-wiser phase, he can’t help but reveal what a self-satisfied, aristocratic twit he is. Bogosian’s sly venom is magic here, because he’s using his darts to puncture a phony, show-biz personality.
When he applies the same hanging-judge technique to everyday folks, the results can just seem brutish. Most of the other characters break down into two groups: crazy/spacey/homeless or loudmouth/macho/jerk. In other words, characters who don’t begin to represent 90 percent of society. There are flashes of brilliance (I loved an aging derelict trying to steady his consciousness around an egg-salad sandwich), and Bogosian is on to something when he has his blowhards ramble on about their substance abuse. If the movie is about anything, it’s how the insatiable, over-the-edge spirit of the ’60s — the culture of sex, drugs, and rock & roll — got divorced from its communal, utopian underpinnings. It’s about how the excess turned toxic. Unveiling the ”dark side” of post-counterculture America, Bogosian wants to blow our collective flaws up to billboard size. Yet how much resonance can there be to a vision that’s all dark and no light? Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is dazzlingly accomplished, but by the end Bogosian’s refusal to find a shred of redemption in anyone he portrays seems like just another example of the insensitivity he’s attacking. B+