In Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, horny college students experiment sexually, lust hangs in the air, evil witches and secret cults wreak havoc, and the end of the world looms. So what else is new? With Kaboom, Araki takes a huge step backward from the maturity and restraint he demonstrated in 2004’s Mysterious Skin, his best and most-assured film to date (and, tellingly, his only adaptation of someone else’s material). His new movie marks a self-conscious return to the freewheeling, sexually explicit turf he previously explored in his defiant “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy of Totally F****d Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere.
But those films were made in the 1990s, when the cultural landscape was much tamer, and Araki was young and angry and still honing his craft. Kaboom’s clunky dialogue, awkward editing, chintzy production values and uneven acting can no longer be forgiven: They come off as inept filmmaking, as if Araki hadn’t learned anything in a career spanning more than 20 years.The movie begins with a symbolic dream that haunts Smith (Thomas Dekker), a college freshman harboring a crush on his stoner-surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka). Kaboom sets a new world record for its number of scenes that end with people suddenly waking up and exhaling with relief. The constant hallucinations make you question everything you’re watching, to the point that you stop caring. Is Smith’s best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) really in a relationship with a supernatural shrew (Roxanne Mesquida)? Did that red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte) who threw up on Smith’s shoes at a party really get stabbed in the head by three guys wearing animal masks? Is Thor secretly gay, or is Smith just being overly hopeful? Does any of this matter?In the first two-thirds of Kaboom, the only thing the characters think about is sex — and they have so much of it, you wonder how they have time for homework. Araki hasn’t lost his knack for seducing and titillating the audience: Kaboom is undeniably a sexy film, designed to appeal equally to all imaginable orientations. (Smith, a film-studies major, is bisexual and cavorts freely with men and women; he’s a clear stand-in for the director.) But the trysts are as hollow as drunken one-night stands, the characters stick figures in a grander, loopier scheme that doesn’t hold together. Woe to anyone who takes Kaboom seriously, especially after a crazy subplot involving an apocalyptic sect takes over the movie, and everyone starts spouting reams of exposition. Five minutes before the film’s end, the protagonists are still explaining what is going on to each other. Araki has always wanted to blow up the planet, and he finally gets his wish, but there’s no joy in the deed: Talk about anti-climactic. I wish Araki had set aside all the apocalyptic silliness and made a full-on teen soap opera: Kaboom is at its best when it plays things earnestly, as with Smith’s flirtations with a shy student (Brennan Mejia) who tentatively asks him out. That subplot is much more human and engaging than lingering close-ups of vomit and dog poop and supposedly transgressive three-ways. For the first time in his career, Araki comes off as an old man trying to be hip — a poseur exposed.