First-time director Risa Bramon Garcia takes a puff from 1995's Smoke and convenes an impressive klatch of young talent around America's favorite carcinogen: Courtney Love, Paul Rudd, Christina Ricci, Martha Plimpton, Gaby Hoffman, Dave Chapelle, Janeane Garofalo and the Brothers Affleck all appear. But though the credits may be a who's who of the hip and happening, the big names, like the title inspiration, burn out quickly.
Set on New Year's Eve in New York, 1981, the film tracks its ensemble through various bad dates and disastrous pick-ups. Bilious Kevin (Rudd), still smarting about a break-up with his performance-artist girlfriend (Garofalo), heads out reluctantly with his profligate pal Lucy (Love). She's bound for a party thrown by overwrought hostess Monica (Plimpton) who's just told her ex (Brian McCardie) he sucks in bed; still, Monica sets the guy up with her friend (Catherine Kellner) just to ensure someone comes to the bash. Also on the invite-list are two Long Island gum-snappers (Ricci and Hoffman), but they get lost and hook up with a pair of leather-clad punkers (Casey Affleck and Guillermo Diaz). Meanwhile, klutzy uptown gal Cindy (Kate Hudson) goes on a date with a lech (Jay Mohr), and two backbiting friends (Angela Featherstone and Nicole Parker) vie for the same jerky bartender (Ben Affleck). Cruising through all the story lines is a jive-talking cabbie (Chapelle) with love on his meter.
Despite the trove of talent, only a handful of performances stand out. Love and Rudd kindle a pleasant chemistry, while sparkly newcomer Hudson (Goldie Hawn's daughter) is a face to watch. Otherwise, Hoffman and Ricci's nasally challenged routine sounds like something out of a bad school play, and the rest of the cast struggles with blandly archetypal assignments. Sure, it's fun to catch Elvis Costello in a cameo, but several seconds of the bespectacled rocker no way justifies the rest of this mess.
Indeed, about the only thing Garcia gets right in this patently unfunny paean to the '80s is the mousse-hardened 'dos. Moreover, the effort is symptomatic of independent filmmaking's current blight: smug, self-conscious comedies that boast killer soundtracks (Costello, Blondie and The Cars contribute here) but neglect elements such as, oh, plot and characterization. Meanwhile, when all the aren't-we-ironic moments run out, the film stoops to banal slapstick and gross-out humor to push a laugh.
Still, 200 Cigarettes's biggest surprise is that it's written and directed by women (Shana Larsen penned the script). Several scenes, in fact, skirt outright misogyny: Hudson's character ends up on her back, spread-legged, in a pile of dog doo; likewise, Featherstone and Parker's floozies jettison any iota of dignity the minute a man circles. There's even a joke about the marketability of vaginas.
The lesson here? Unlike Monica's New Year's party, it's not enough that a crowd of familiar faces show. In the end, the cast of 200 Cigarettes may ignite the credits, but the hype just adds up to a lot of smoke.