Film: The Big Picture: Live fast, hang loose

Go (18) Director: Doug Liman Starring: Sarah Polley, William Fichtner, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr 101 Mins
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The Independent Culture
About a third of the way into Doug Liman's new movie, Go, something quite shocking happens. Prior to this we've been having a high old time in the company of teenage friends Ronna (Sarah Polley) and Claire (Katie Holmes), who work as check-out girls in a Los Angeles supermarket. It's Christmas eve and Ronna is barely able to pay her monthly rent, so she decides to risk a little entrepreneurial scam, buying 20 Ecstasy tabs to sell to a couple of nice boys at a mark-up price. But her scheme starts to unravel, and soon she is selling aspirin to credulous 15 year olds and fleeing Todd (Timothy Olyphant), the drug dealer who thinks she's ripped him off. Then the shock: she is hit by a car and left for dead in a ditch. It's Hitchcock's Psycho trick - involve us in the heroine's fate, then kill her without warning.

Yet, in a way that will become familiar, this isn't what it seems, and in any case the movie doesn't allow us to pause, let alone mourn. Instead, the director throws it into reverse, and we're back at the supermarket where the film kicked off. This time it's about Ronna's friend Simon (Desmond Askew) hitting the freeway to Vegas, with the plot gathering speed alongside him: before the night's out he has gatecrashed a wedding, had a three- in-the-bed romp, set fire to a hotel room, accidentally shot a strip-club bouncer and razzed around town in a stolen Ferrari.

The movie stops and returns to the start once more, this time following two soap-opera actors, Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), the couple who tried to score drugs from Ronna. In fact, they've been coerced into a drug sting by narcotics cop Burke (William Fichtner, in a performance of immaculate creepiness) who then invites them back for a Christmas dinner, which again promises to turn into something very outlandish.

In the way the three stories interlock, Go recalls something of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, another portmanteau movie that trawled the scuzzier reaches of LA life. But Liman's vision is more benign, and his characters are more prone to take flight than confront trouble. In the middle section, for instance, Simon seems to spend most of the night scrambling his way out of a nightmare. His first mistake was to ignore the express warning about pawing lap-dancers, but then he's a Brit abroad, so what do you expect? Similarly, Adam and Zack believe they're being lured into a bizarre sexual trap which actually turns out to be a home-shopping syndicate.

What with all these drugs and guns and stolen cars the film seems always on the verge of something dark, but ends up merely disconcerting. It embraces a strange kind of innocence, in much the same way as Liman's debut Swingers did: there's a moment in that film when an argument turns nasty and Vince's friend pulls a gun. By the end of the film the same guys are all merrily clinking beers in front of the TV. If it's not too early to be talking about Liman's forte (Go is only his second film) you could point to his relaxed way with guys together, a condition nobody has nailed so confidently since Barry Levinson back in his Diner days.

In Go, Simon's car-ride to Vegas with his pals provides most of the banter, the best of which centres upon the absurd pretensions of a white boy who thinks he's a brother. Marcus (Taye Diggs) tells him: "If you were any less black you'd be clear." John August's script bristles with such snappy one-liners, though the biggest laughs spring from the head trip Ronna's friend Mannie takes on the back of two acid tabs, first doing a joyous macarena around the supermarket, then a very funny eye-to-eye with an alley cat, subtitles included.

Liman has assembled his talented young cast from varying backgrounds. After her harrowing performance in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter I never thought Sarah Polley would look comfortable with comedy, but her demeanour is perfectly tuned to the plot's swerves. Katie Holmes made her name on the US teen soap Dawson's Creek, which may be behind her admirable self-assurance.

So: fine performances, ingenious structure, trippy comic energy. Is there anything this film doesn't have? Well, you could say it lacks a moral, but that again would be to praise it. This three-part shaggy dog story is not really "about" anything - there's no theme to tease out. Liman has simply taken a walk on the wild side and introduced us to a crew of kids who have still got the urge, and just enough money, to live fast and hang loose. It's not a call to arms, just an exuberant antidote to health and efficiency.

In other words, do not pass Go.