"Detroit Rock City" is supposed to be a fun teen comedy, set in 1978, about four high-school guys - Edward Furlong, Sam Huntington, Giuseppe Andrews and James De Bello -who go to incredible slapstick lengths to get into a big KISS concert. It's supposed to make you laugh like crazy. What it really does is make your skin crawl.
That's because the movie's highly unfunny depiction of middle-aged women and their relations with young men strongly suggests that the filmmakers have what a psychiatrist might call "unresolved issues with Mother."
For starters, mom Lin Shayne is shown from almost the first frame harrying and chastising her son (Huntington) because he listens to rock and "smokes the dope." Spouting religious nonsense with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she is the movie's Energizer Bunny, forever popping up even when the action moves from the boys' hometown to Detroit. Not once does her character elicit so much as a nervous laugh.
Then there's a scene in which the Furlong character performs a strip tease in front of a bunch of ladies in a nightclub called it's Raining Men in hopes of winning $100 so he can finally bag the KISS tickets he needs. The episode is highly embarrassing to watch and not funny in the least. It's not often that movies turn this unappetizing with so little to show for it.
The strip-club sequence culminates with Furlong - his character is clearly under-age-having sex with an attractive fortyish woman in her car, an encounter the movie seems to approve of. (Imagine if the genders were reversed!)
The queasiness takes a different turn at the end, when the actual members of KISS appear as themselves performing in concert. The quick-cut editing, although standard for rock-music footage of this sort, seems designed to keep your attention as lightly as possible on the fact that these men strutting around in so much bare skin, leather and hair with their tongues sticking out are well past their prime. (At least the Rolling Stones have the good taste to keep most of their clothes on when they go out in public.)
The movie contains one gem of a performance - or rather fraction of a performance. That's Sam Huntington in the first 20 minutes of the movie, as his harridan mom menaces and embarrasses him while his pals put pressure on him to break away. With scarcely a word of dialogue, Huntington's hapless, Harpo-esque reactions convey a lot of charm.
Once he's reunited with his pals and they all hit the road, though, the charm disappears.
The members of KISS were, it need hardly be said, instrumental in developing and producing the movie. It's difficult to figure who they thought it would appeal to-their '70s fans, now middle-aged, or today's teenagers, on the assumption that they give a hoot about the craziness of 20 years ago?
One thing's for sure: "Detroit Rock City" makes "There's Something About Mary" look like Noel Coward.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News