Monday, October 1, 2012

Despite the Title, This is Not One Man's History of the Toilet: "Johns" (1997)

Lukas Haas, the little kid from "Witness," is all grown up and taking some serious adult roles. "Johns" is his film, and he does a great job here.

David Arquette plays John, who will be turning 21 on Christmas Day. He is a gay hustler who is looking to stay on his birthday in a fancy L.A. hotel. Haas is his best friend, the new guy working the street. His father is a doctor, but kicked him out for being gay. Most of the film concerns John's efforts to collect money he owes a drug dealer. His shoes are stolen in the opening moments of the film, and we find out that was where he stashed his cash. This opening also sets up a failed surprise ending that is really forced.

The film's sparse plot meanders through John's encounters, some with other men named John, hence the film's title, until the end. Haas and Arquette are ready to leave for Branson, Missouri on a bus but Arquette wants to do "one last date." You can probably see where that is going.

The film has enough quirky characters to make a "Northern Exposure" fan drool. Richard Kind is a kind hotel clerk. Keith David is a mysterious homeless man. John C. McGinley is a Hollywood producer. Arliss Howard is a stuttering Bible beater who becomes Arquette's last date. Elliot Gould plays a rich client of Arquette's. Arquette's drug dealing nemesis cannot add and subtract. All of these actors have little quirks and tics that I think the film maker wanted us to find endearing. You only have sympathy for Haas, so I felt the film wasted too much time showing us all the other scenes. Arquette is five years too old for this role, and I smiled every time he picked up a phone, wondering if he would follow his own advice in those terrible phone company ads he appeared in. His career choices lately have been stupid ("Ready to Rumble" anyone?), and this leaves a bad impression on anything serious he attempts.

Except for Haas, everyone goes through the motions of a story that liberally borrows from "Midnight Cowboy." You just know one of them will die in the end, and sure enough, one does. The film wants to make a moral point, but try to have fun doing it at the same time, and this does not work.

One creepy scene involves Arquette and Gould having a rendezvous and kissing. Arquette is married to Courteney Cox in real life, and Gould plays Cox's father on "Friends." After this twisted "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-like game, I felt really weird watching their scene.

Silver's direction is better than his script, and you have to give him credit for coming up with one of the most eclectic soundtracks I have ever heard, but eventually "Johns" fails both Haas, and us.

If you want to see a real film about street children, watch the documentary "Streetwise." That film makes this look like "Sesame Street." (* *) out of five stars.