The Strange, Sick, Sad Career of Michael Rosenbaum

(Archived from my now-defunct Geocities site.)

Let's make one thing clear: Michael Rosenbaum owns "Smallville."

Oh, sure, if you look at it in terms of billing or total number of scenes or overall importance to the collective national pop culture consciousness, then yes, Rosenbaum's dewy co-star Tom Welling, who plays emerging superhero Clark Kent, would seem to have the better claim to the show. But really, who are we kidding? "Smallville" belongs in no small part to Rosenbaum's marvelously complex Lex Luthor. Smooth, shrewd, polished, devious, slutty, generous, laid-back, and, on occasion, stark raving nuts, Lex is at times the only thing distinguishing "Smallville" from the glut of other teen-oriented shows on The WB. Lex, in short, rocks.

(Note: A convincing argument could be made that John Glover, who plays Lex's charmingly evil father Lionel, actually owns "Smallville," but that's a Strange, Sick, Sad Career essay for another time. Today is all about Rosenbaum).

Unlike Welling, who proceeded immediately from being birthed from the sea foam into television stardom (with minor detours along the way for day jobs in the fields of construction work and male modeling), Rosenbaum has been around for a while, putting in his time in the trenches. He's a talented actor, and more to the point, he's not afraid to work at it. He is also, as anyone who's ever read one of his interviews or listened to one of his audio commentaries knows, a high-energy, high-voltage, loose-cannon kick in the pants, and we love him for it.

It's been a long strange journey to Smallville. Here are the high points:

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997):
I had seen Clint Eastwood's stagnant adaptation of John Berendt's book about the weird goings-on in Savannah when it first came out, and I more or less had a clear memory of it (though it's entirely possible I napped through some of John Cusack's romance with Allison Eastwood. I am, after all, only human). Hence, I was confused to see this on Rosenbaum's filmography, as I had absolutely no recollection of him being in it in any way, shape or form. In the interest of Rosenbaum completion, I plodded my way through it again. There were no new revelations the second time around, though I can now confirm that Rosenbaum is, in fact, in the movie, in one brief dues-paying scene as Jude Law's buddy who testifies at Kevin Spacey's murder trial. If you remember his part at all, it'd be for his under-oath insistence that he's been heterosexual for two whole weeks. Way to earn your SAG card, Michael.

1999 (1998):
The video box for "1999" has a short blurb about writer/director Nick Davis, which notes that he's the grandson of legendary "Citizen Kane" scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz. Unless you have just written the next "Citizen Kane," this is the sort of information you might want to leave off the video box of your movie, in the interest of avoiding scorn and ridicule from people like me. In fairness to Davis, the film appears to have been released on video as part of a series of independent films, and thus the biographical information was probably part of an attempt by the distributor to lend the film indie cred. Any established cred was then immediately negated by the decision to put bit player Amanda Peet in a shiny tank top on the cover. "1999" saw its video release in 2001, right when Peet was enjoying a wave of fame for her roles in "Whipped" and "The Whole Nine Yards"; had it been released the following year after the debut of "Alias," I have little doubt that co-star Jennifer Garner would've been on the cover in a shiny tank top instead.

"1999" rubbed me the wrong way at first, to the extent that I shut it off halfway through and took a brisk walk in the pouring rain until I had burned off enough crankiness to finish watching it. The plot deals with the collective angst of a group of New Yorkers at a New Year's Eve party, pre-millennium. Dan Futterman's central character is a filmmaker who, on the cusp of the millennium, worries at length about his career shortcomings; he alleviates his self-doubts by breaking up with sweetly devoted girlfriend Garner and making a play for sexy coworker Peet. This all plays out about as sympathetically as you'd think.

Rosenbaum, for his part, is tucked away with Timothy Olyphant in a tedious durian fruit-related subplot - specifically, their quest to unlock the mysterious psychotropic qualities thereof. Let me take this opportunity to point out that durian fruit has no mysterious psychotropic qualities. I'm not sure it's ever been purported to have mysterious psychotropic qualities anywhere outside of this movie.

The film is shot in someone's living room on a shoestring budget; the production values are actually a little lower than what you'd find in your average student film. Davis assembled a hotbed of emerging talent here, but there's no detectable star quality in anyone; it looks for all the world like Davis bribed his friends and college roommates into giving up their weekend to make his film. Still, by the end, as the various subplots played themselves out, I mellowed in my attitude. There's a lot wrong with "1999," but it more or less comes together, and the script is strong. The video was preceded by a strange message from Davis about how, despite maxing out his credit cards to make the film and not seeing any return on his investment, he'd do it all over again. Everything considered, there were probably worse ways he could have spent his money. Were there better ways he could have spent his money? Oh, hell yes.

Urban Legend (1998):
Remember when that vested, wide-collared, sideburned, Saturday Night Feverish look experienced a revival in the late nineties amongst a certain kind of hip yet irritating guy? Yes, thanks to "Urban Legend," Rosenbaum has immortalized that fashion moment on screen, lucky fellow. One of the slew of teen horror films that washed up into theaters in the wake of "Scream," "Urban Legend"'s signature gimmick lies in the title: a flimsily-motivated psychotic killer butchers college kids in ways reckoning back to urban legends. Like the other films of its ilk, "Urban Legend" has the requisite hip young cast, including the consistently entertaining Joshua Jackson and the less consistently entertaining Jared Leto. It also features a lively performance by Tara Reid, whose well-documented off-screen antics unfortunately tend to overshadow her genuine comic flair; here, Reid shows more spark than gorgeous but sullen lead Alicia Witt. Rosenbaum fills a very specific horror movie niche in "Urban Legend": he's the vaguely assholish friend who gets butchered in some creative yet physically improbable manner. Curiously enough, Jackson also fulfils that exact same function.

So is there anything about "Urban Legend" that makes it stand out from the horror movie pack? Eh. The DVD features a restored sex scene between Rosenbaum and Reid, which is worth a gander. Why, why, why do the powers-that-be behind horror movies always delete the sex scenes? Do the filmmakers presume that the target audience has no interest in watching fit, attractive actors enthusiastically boning away at each other? Or perhaps in this case they didn't want to offend the delicate moral sensibilities of an audience which later gets subjected to such treats as the killer sticking Rosenbaum's cute little doggie in the microwave (an urban legend I would have been just as happy if they'd left out). I don't get it.

Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane (1999):
One of the first sitcoms to come out of the formative years of the WB network, this series, which revolved around four teenagers in New York, was an attempt to recreate the "Friends" formula for a slightly younger demographic. Short-lived as it was, this is the show that put Selma Blair (as the titular Zoe) on the map, launched character actor careers for Rosenbaum (Jack) and Azura Skye (Jane), and... did absolutely nothing at all for David Moscow (Duncan), who has yet to live down his song-and-dance work in the gleeful career-ending monstrosity known as "Newsies." How Christian Bale survived "Newsies" with his dignity intact is still a mystery.

Sweet November (2001):
Someone must like movies like "Sweet November," because they keep getting made. Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron play mismatched lovers who spend a whirlwind month together while Theron wastes away from a fatal yet impossibly glamorous disease. It's "Love Story," only crappier. Or, to be more precise, it's "Sweet November" circa 1968 with Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley, only crappier.

Reeves plays a successful ad exec (read: asshole) in San Francisco who falls madly in love with Theron's kooky, madcap free spirit and learns to live life to its fullest through cavorting with puppies and small children. No, really - he cavorts with puppies and small children, and whatever your feelings about Reeves, you have to admit that's just cruel to do to an actor. Reeves reaches an epiphany about his high-pressure lifestyle over a business lunch with a ruthless titan of the ad industry (Frank Langella); when Langella berates a waitress until she runs off in tears, Reeves realizes that, hey, he really doesn't want to work for this guy, and walks out of the restaurant a liberated free spirit. Which is several notches less helpful than actually comforting the poor sobbing waitress or defending her against Langella's harangue, but I suppose every epiphany is unique.

On the plus side, "Sweet November" features the first - but not last - of Rosenbaum's screen forays into transvestitism. Rosenbaum and the always-swell Jason Isaacs play spunky cross-dressers who live downstairs from Theron; when Reeves is introduced to them over dinner, he's shocked - shocked! Y'know, San Francisco being such a stodgy, straight-laced city and all. Rosenbaum is oddly compelling in drag: cute, slinky, and flirty, and simply on the basis of how good he is at playing a cross-dresser, the "Smallville" writers really should find a way to work in a scene where Lex storms around his mansion in heels and a slinky cocktail dress. Really. They could do worse. They have done worse, come to think of it.

Rave Macbeth (2001):
Rumor has it Rosenbaum has been known to ask his fans not to see "Rave Macbeth." If true, the actor doth protest too much: he has more to be embarrassed about on his rèsumé than this bit of piffle. Yes, "Bringing Down the House," I'm looking at you.

Directed by Klaus Knoesel and filmed in Munich, "Rave Macbeth" never saw a theatrical or DVD release in the U.S.; my copy reached these shores by way of Manila, which explains why the anti-piracy announcement at the start is in Tagalog. The film is based upon Shakespeare in roughly the same way "Clueless" is drawn from Jane Austen’s "Emma": surface comparisons exist, but you’d be hard-pressed to cough up a whole term paper on the subject. In the opening sequence, Shakespeare's witches, woefully reinterpreted as a trio of hot club babes, strike coquettish poses and flit about in gauzy dresses while delivering prophetic messages of doom and taxing the patience of the audience. The witches are the film's only major misfire; the rest is more or less entertaining and, at times, actually pretty good.

Rosenbaum gives a strong performance as Marcus, a druggy, venal, dumb-as-rocks club kid who, along with his happy-go-lucky sidekick Troy (Jamie Elman), gets appointed second-in-command to drug-dealing rave boss Dean (Kirk Baltz). After announcing the promotion, Dean gives Marcus and Troy explicit instructions not to get high while working, a prohibition they cheerfully violate in something under a minute. The witches prophesize that Marcus is to be King of the Rave--a coveted position, apparently, though it sounds like it would involve cleaning up a lot of vomit and constantly bailing your drug-addled friends out of jail. Marcus, egged on by his shrewd girlfriend Livia (a gleefully manipulative Nicki Lynn Aycox), sets about the task of murdering Troy, Dean, and Troy's sweetly idiotic girlfriend, Helena (Marguerite Moreau).

A smidgen light on plot, "Rave Macbeth" nails the atmosphere. The mood tilts from exhilarated to paranoid as the drug-fueled escapades of Marcus and Livia spiral out of control. By the blood-soaked (literally--I was left wondering how those gallons of blood got into the club’s sprinkler system in the first place) climax, I felt as though I’d spent a debauched and exhausting though not entirely unsatisfying evening hanging out in places best avoided. Rosenbaum and Aycox generate a strong Sid and Nancy vibe as the drugged-out, murderous lovebirds, and Elman, who sports a fetching mesh shirt and the fiercest eyeliner-and-peroxide combo since Jonny Lee Miller skeezed his way through "Trainspotting," is a real find. There's not much on Elman's filmography outside of a recurring role on the failed television series "American Dreams," which is a shame; here's hoping he finds bucketloads of work, because he's a cutie. He can even crash on my couch while he's looking for a job, provided he brings the mesh shirt.

Poolhall Junkies(2002):
"Poolhall Junkies" is the kind of movie that really ticks off a certain kind of film buff, the ones who are sticklers for continuity and motivation and character development. As is probably abundantly clear from my effusive love of "Street Fighter," I am not that kind of film buff.

Set in the scruffy world of the billiard rooms of Salt Lake City, "Poolhall Junkies" is a guy film at its core, which is submerged beneath a thick layer of schmaltz and hokum: it's less "The Hustler," more "The Outsiders." Fortunately, I have a soft spot for "The Outsiders," so I was perfectly happy. "Poolhall Junkies" was written and directed by Mars Callahan, who also wrote himself right into a meaty starring role, which is a neat trick. Callahan's lack of fuss and bother about the process of filmmaking is somehow charming: when it snows in the middle of a scene after all scenes heretofore have been sunny and mild, a tossed-off expository line about the weather explains it away. Oh, heck, why not? It's a by-the-numbers plot, down to the rousing climactic billiards battle against Callahan's pool-playing nemesis (Rick Schroeder, icy blond and coolly menacing, cut from the same cloth as Dolph Lundgren in "Rocky IV"). A little more attention to detail overall would have been nice, but the film works: it goes from Point A to Point B with a minimum of dithering, and it features a crackerjack cast, including the loony and magnificent Christopher Walken, the late Rod Steiger putting the lid on a long and distinguished career, and, in the Chazz Palmintieri role, Chazz Palmintieri. Rosenbaum plays Callahan's kid brother, and the two share a funky, fun, natural chemistry. The main charm of the movie is watching Rosenbaum and Callahan bop around pool tables with their matching spiky black haircuts and tight jeans and black T-shirts over long-sleeved shirts; if nothing else, I gleaned valuable pool hall fashion tips from this film.

Sorority Boys (2002):
I adore "Sorority Boys." Does that make me a bad person?

During my bleak years as an undergraduate at USC, I lived in an apartment just off of Fraternity Row. There was a large frat house on the corner that I'd pass by on my way to campus every day. In the afternoon on sunny days, the assembled frat boys would sit in lawn chairs on the front lawn, staring at passersby with blank, dead-eyed glares. "Sorority Boys" was shot at that frat house, though the fictionalized frat brothers are much livelier than their real-life counterparts. No blank malevolence here; instead, there's misbehavior on a farcical scale: launching sex toys on makeshift catapults through the windows of nearby sororities, forcibly evicting unattractive girls from their parties, and subjecting their female conquests to a morning-after Walk of Shame insulting and degrading enough to ensure that, in real life, these boys would never, ever, ever find female companionship again.

There's the merest fragmentary, ephemeral, vapor-like wisp of a plot to hold "Sorority Boys" together: Rosenbaum, along with "7th Heaven" cherub Barry Watson and comic Harland Williams, star as a trio of frat boys who, upon getting booted from their house, don dresses and move into the ugly-girl sorority across the street. The fact that they're not even remotely convincing as women is a total irrelevancy; "Sorority Boys" is not concerned with plausibility in any way, which should be immediately obvious by the first look at the purported ugly girls, represented by knockout Melissa Sagemiller and cute-as-a-bug Heather Matarazzo, who, on the basis of her bravura performance as an uber-misfit in "Welcome to the Dollhouse," has become Hollywood's go-to girl for ugly duckling roles. In a more perfect universe, Matarazzo would next be cast as a beautiful princess in a major motion picture, preferably something in which her ugly stepsisters are played by Julia Stiles and Anne Hathaway.

"Sorority Boys" is Rosenbaum's movie, which he easily wrestles away from first-billed Watson with the same aplomb that he used to steal "Smallville" from Tom Welling. This is thanks to his willingness to sacrifice dignity for the greater good of the movie (by contrast, Watson spends the first part of the film trying to preserve his cool - a battle he loses right around the time he has to let a washcloth dangle off his soapy erection during a shower scene). The guilty joy of "Sorority Boys" lies in Rosenbaum's crack comic timing in his mounting frustration over the trappings of college-girl existence: the way heels impede his ability to throw a football, the nonstop misogyny of the frat boys, his growing neuroses about the size of his ass, all culminating in the shattered dignity and smeared mascara of his very own Walk of Shame.

The film was shot during the "Smallville" production cycle, while Rosenbaum was sporting Lex's shaved pate, which means that, even out of drag, he got stuck with a series of wigs awful enough to cause a few giggles on their own. The jokes don't always hit, but there's a high enough success ratio and the energy and momentum is kept high enough to keep things moving briskly for ninety minutes of lowbrow nitwitty fun. It's directed by Wallace Wolodarksy, a former writer for "The Simpsons," and it's got the same haphazard, mildly subversive feel. There are many things to love about "Sorority Boys," not least of which is the moldy, mothball-scented soundtrack: clearly the budget was not blown on song royalties, as there's nothing here fresher than Kool and the Gang and The Cars and The Knack. Fabulous.

Bringing Down the House (2003):
There was once a time when Steve Martin was capable of making a decent movie. I have a distant but clear memory of those days. Lately, it's been nothing but unmemorable dreck (case in point: "Cheaper by the Dozen," remarkable only in that Hilary Duff is merely the eleventh most annoying character), and "Bringing Down the House" continues that trend, Queen Latifah or no Queen Latifah. Rosenbaum flits through the background at sporadic intervals playing a sleazeball lawyer in another crappy wig. And you're really that embarrassed by "Rave Macbeth," Michael?

Cursed (2004):
Granted, "Cursed" doesn't live up to the potential that the reunited "Scream" team of director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson would suggest. Still, considering the delay- and disaster-ridden production, which resulted in significant reshooting and recasting, it's not nearly as bad as the reviews and weak box office would have you think. An urban tale of werewolves in Los Angeles, Cursed stars Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg as siblings who start developing lupine traits after a late-night attack. The production delays necessitated the ousting of former star Skeet Ulrich, who was replaced by Joshua Jackson (nothing against Ulrich, but I'm going to have to consider this a plus: Jackson is always worth watching, and sheesh, the guy's half-lupine already). Mandy Moore was replaced by Mya (a lateral move), while Portia de Rossi and Rosenbaum were brought in late in the game to bulk out the plot a little; I can't fault Craven's logic in this, but it would have been swell if he had actually given either of them something to do. Rosenbaum, in an uncredited cameo, serves exactly the same purpose as he did in "Urban Legend": he's the red herring who gets butchered. While wearing yet another bad wig, no less. Shortly before release, "Cursed" was recut to tone the rating down from an R to a PG-13, a decision which resulted in the excising of much of the violence, which, naturally enough, made the gorehounds irate. For my part, the cuts didn't bother me much: I have nothing against Shannon Elizabeth, and therefore had no burning need to see her torso ripped in two by the werewolf. A tasteful fade to black was just fine with me.

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