The Best Movie Critic + review

New Camp Icons: Juliette Lewis

I need to clarify something - when I say something is "Camp" or "Campy", I am in no way saying that it is bad, or trying to demean it. Quite the opposite, really. I hate the "so bad it's good" label, same with "guilty pleasures" - if you get enjoyment out of a film it is good, plain and simple, you shouldn’t feel bad. Please read no ill will or mean spiritedness into my "jokes" (presumptuous), for there is absolutely none intended. This is all to say; Juliette Lewis, if you're reading this, I love you. Camp Icons are normally covered in glitter and gold: Joan Crawford, Cher, Gina Gershon – all women created by God to have exclamation points after their names. My girl Juliette is a little grungier than them, and a lot fucking weirder. I can say that because I watched four of her finest movies this week.
Juliette Lewis is perhaps the most unique of the 1990s crop of ingénues that dated Brad Pitt. Stardom came quickly for her and didn't stay for long. She was too goddamn obtuse to go after the roles that her contemporaries Gwyneth Paltrow or The Aniston did - and for this I am thankful. It is her lack of range that makes her interesting, her very specific actorly tics that make her hilarious even though 80% of them are dead serious. She never stands still, seemingly always trying to climb out of her own skin. She is deceptively doe eyed, but turns on a dime into a raging, spitting lunatic. All of her notable roles (at least the few that I am going to write about today) require both a childlike innocence and the ability to freak the fuck out on a dime. She has two modes: cuddly and cobra, and I posit that no one has yet properly captured them on film. I don't even know if it's possible. So let's start at the beginning.

Cape Fear (1991): When your first movie is directed by Martin Scorsese, co-starring Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange, and you are nominated for an Oscar for your performance, it kind of leaves a lot to live up to - especially when the most memorable scene in the movie is when Lewis gets thumb-fucked in the mouth by DeNiro backstage at her school play.

Kalifornia (1993): One sentence summary: Lewis plays a young woman who keeps a pet cactus in her purse named Lucy that is in an abusive relationship with a white trash serial killer portrayed by Brad Pitt, and the couple goes on a road trip with David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. There is not another actress in the world that could play a character that talks to a cactus as convincingly as Juliette can. My sister and I were abnormally obsessed with this movie as tweens, and for that I have no explanation. A 12-year-old has no right to see this thing. Natural Born Killers (1994): Satire? Camp? Commentary? Performance Art? What is this?! Juliette Lewis never met a line of dialogue she didn’t want to SCREAM, and half of Natural Born Killers consists of her screaming incoherently while Oliver Stone plays tricks with the cinematography. I know that it was very controversial upon its release, inspiring people to protest, murder, and whatnot, but revisiting it now makes it all seem so calculated and annoying. Like Lewis’s Mallory Knox, Natural Born Killers is a yeller. Shot in every imaginable form of film stock, and from every possible angle, I had to watch it in spurts when I finally got around to it – only about 40 minutes at a time. It’s a headache-inducing experience and unpleasant in ways that I once thought inconceivable. But she’s good! She’s scary and hilarious and ridiculous and good! This is the performance that should have gotten the Oscar nomination – not the Lolita-lite she plays in Cape Fear.

The Other Sister (1999), a.k.a, "I CAN DO IT MYSELF, MOTHER!": Marking her grand entrance into the world of mainstream romantic comedy, The Other Sister is an offensive, barely-tolerable, horrifically misguided mess. Lewis plays herself, basically, but mentally handicapped, and Gionvanni Ribisi is her retarded boyfriend. This is also the film that marked Diane Keaton’s (as Lewis’s mother) descendancy from Oscar winning Woody Allen muse to second-tier romantic comedy star for Old People (watch your back, MERYL). Lewis is mind alteringly bad, in a movie that beats you over the head with the message, “RETARDS ARE PEOPLE TOO!” Take this line:

No matter how long I wait I can't be a painter, and I can't play tennis, and I'm not an artist. But I know how to do something, and I can love.”
I can’t with that. I just… can’t. It really must be seen to be believed – luckily it’s on cable all the time, so you won’t have to waste a spot on your Netflix queue. I mean, just look at the poster, don't waste your money.

Unfortunately after The Other Sister Juliette sort of disappeared for a bit – she popped up now and then in supporting roles as the heroine’s quirky BFF, but leading roles never really came back. Most starlets might take that as their cue to get some plastic surgery or drink themselves into a coma – but Juliette Lewis started a band and put out a series of well-received albums supported by magnetic live performances. She didn’t really have a career anymore, so she just fucking made one. YOU GO GIRL. One day when Quentin Tarantino’s looking for his next washed-up muse, I hope he calls Juliette. -Ryan

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New Camp Icons: Juliette Lewis + review