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Bench Players: Don McKellar and Olympia Dukakis try to avoid 'Philadelphia' in 'The Event.'

Dead Man's Party

'The Event': It's a comedy! It's a weeper! It's a must to avoid.

By Richard von Busack

SO THE Florida band Hell on Earth is planning to show the assisted suicide of a terminally ill patient as part of an upcoming show. This project has already set off all of the usual alarums, if the law allows it to come to pass (I'd check the no-refunds clause on my ticket, if I were going). The next step is staging the showier type of ancient Roman suicides: like the philosopher Seneca's, when the soon-to-be-demised, bleeding to death in the customary warm bath, prolonged his expiration by binding up his wrists. Thus the moribund could continue lecturing to the onlookers.

That's what the movie The Event is like, as it now expires at a theater near you. Halifax director Thom Fitzgerald (who did the odd magical-realist film The Hanging Garden) made this story of a cop (Parker Posey) investigating the suicide of a terminal AIDS case named Matt Shapiro (Don McKellar). After much investigation, it transpires that the death occurred during a clandestine "event"--a death-day party, hosted by his loved ones.

It's hard to buy the idea of the NYPD wasting so much time on a victimless crime, and you wonder where the gay community is on this. Still, Posey is well cast as the NYPD plainclothes officer. Her particular brand of well-bred hostility hasn't been used in a crime drama before, and playing police officers could be easy and honorable money for her in the future. Still, there's no real suspense in her investigation. As she interviews the survivors, they reveal aspects of Shapiro's life--odd, brittle fragments of comedy relief in a movie that prides itself on being as unlike the movie Philadelphia as possible.

The blood, shit, oxygen tents and vomit of last-stage AIDS are onscreen, but they are onscreen with the same kind of crying-clown drag-queen pathos that appears in all-too-mainstream entertainments. One transvestite--a big bruiser, the Eddie Izzard type--kicks a cop in the nuts; we're supposed to think it's uproarious, but Fitzgerald stages the scene viciously.

Fitzgerald's wonkiness of tone keeps The Event from being what I think it wants to be most, a successful tearjerker. Occasionally, the movie gives you that out, as when Matt's possessions are divided to the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears' "And When I Die." A weeper is the kind of movie Olympia Dukakis (as Shapiro's mom) probably signed up for. As Matt's sister, unsuccessful actress Sarah Polley has never been more remote. Polley may have been alienated by the vaginal-cream commercial parody she's forced to do here. The whole concept doesn't work. Who would cast an unglamorous woman like Polley, with her air of post-punk surliness, to be a girl next door in a soft-sell feminine-hygiene TV commercial?

The film's particular combination of cuteness and direness has a name: smarm, smarm it justifies on the grounds that the AIDS crisis isn't over and we need to re-examine our laws against assisted suicide. Unsurprisingly, that's also Hell on Earth's rationale for using a death as part of its act; it's supposed to be instruction, not sensationalism. Anyway, The Event is certainly a movie that could help take the sting out of death.

The Event (R; 110 min.), directed by Thom Fitzgerald, written by Fitzgerald, Steven Hillyer and Tim Marback, photographed by Tom Harting and starring Don McKellar and Olympia Dukakis, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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