Johns

Story time
★★
☆☆
Released: 
1996
Director: 
Scott Silver
Starring: 
David Arquette, Lukas Haas, Keith David, Terrence Howard
The Setup: 
A day in the life of two L.A. male hustlers.
Discussion: 

So there I am browsing my Netflix queue thinking “what to watch, what to watch…” when it becomes apparent that there is a movie about gay hustlers and it is NOT at th top of my list! Because come on, gay hustlers? That’s a topic right up there with genetically-engineered super-sharks in terms of demanding my immediate attention.

We open with David Arquette as John sleeping in a park while someone steals his shoes. While this is going on there’s a voice-over that tells us that the characters we’re going to see are fictional, but all “the following hustler stories are true.” Then we find out from the credits that Terrence Howard is in this!

So John awakes to find his shoes—where he keeps his money—gone, and runs trying to find them, then ends up in this movie producer’s car saying “Man, I’m famished… I am dead broke… You should put me in a movie, I can really act.” There’s some line somewhere that implied that he may really be a struggling actor. He buys some cheeseburgers with his recent earnings, and is approached by Keith David with his hand out. John says “You can’t beg from another homeless guy,” but ends up giving David the rest of his burger anyway.

He then meets up with his friend, Lucas Haas as Donner. Haas was the kid from Witness and also made notable appearances in Rambling Rose and Mars Attacks, and he’s always just super. I really enjoy seeing him. And it was nice to get a big slice of some Haas dramatic acting to chew on. They go to this house where they live with a bunch of people, and Donner tells a story [which I had heard before, I used to have a tape of David Wojnarowicz telling stories about his hustling days] about a trick who wanted him to throw grapefruits at his upturned ass. When Donner starts to laugh about it, the guy beats him up. If this movie and others about gay hustling are to be believed, hustlers get beat up by approximately 85% of their clientele. Haas delivers ths speech while standing in front of a poster of a cop whose head is a skull, standing with a smoking gun.

So John and Donner meet up with some other guy in the streets, who seems to be well on his way toward losing his mind, and they talk for a second, during which we see that they’re all being very good about staying constantly in motion, climbing and hanging from a fence, then walking over and slumping on a parking meter, then walking back and forth aimlessly… it’s just interesting to see such purely physical aspects to performances. You will also note the Negro blues selections on the soundtrack, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The soundtrack is definitely a little maudlin in its expression of “what’s REALLY going on,” and it’s only going to get worse.

So then John encounters his sometime-girlfriend Nicky who is a HOOT and a HALF… she is this tough Latina of the streets and the actress who plays her never wavers in her characterization. I was REALLY into Nicky. I would totally watch The Nicky Story. So by the way, have I told you that this is all happening on Christmas eve, and that the next day [Christmas day!] is John’s birthday? Yes—it’s THAT obvious! And his dream is to raise enough money to afford a room in this swank hotel where he can spend the night and just chill and not be a hustler for a few hours? Yes, that’s the deal.

So by the time John gets into a van with this black fellow who wants to be blown as he drives and does poppers, then stabs John in the leg, you will have realized that what we’re watching is really just a collection of the most notable hustler stories strung together by a loose narrative. Nothing wrong with that—except that as I said, seemingly 85% deal with the hustler getting beaten or stabbed, which would make it hard to believe that THAT many people really pursue this profession, despite how desperate they are.

Hey, now it’s time for a little characterization. We find out that Donner used to want to be a nurse. He “Fell in love with all the uniforms and hairdos.” And—his father was a doctor. Okay, it’s reading comprehension time: who is Donner ultimately really in love with? We find out that his father kicked him out of the house when he learned that Donner was gay, and thus he is on the streets. We have also begun to infer that in the more immediate term, Donner has his heart set on John.

So amidst all the maudlin stuff like John spinning while we hear music from The Nutcracker on the soundtrack, we have pretty good little details like then walking in an alley while a truck is backing up, remaining constantly behind them and sort of pushing them out.

SPOILERS > > >
But now it’s conflict time, and for us to supply an idealized goal that can be tragically snatched away at the last second so we can all realize how tenuous life on the street can be. Donner says of John’s hotel dream: “It’s just a room,” which causes John to freak out and order Donner to stay away, which Donner refuses: “I won’t leave you alone, you’re my best friend.” Haas whips out some effectively sensitive acting here. Donner is left lying in the alley, and who should show up with hand outstretched than Keith David, and guess what? That hand held out isn’t asking for handouts… it’s offering a hand up! You know, if only we could all just reach out in trust and understanding instead of hiding behind walls of suspicion. Cathy Dennis was right: Too many walls have been built in between us.

Now a digression; since Haas is named Donner, for some reason it came to me that a fabulous name for a post-punk ironic gay band would be THE DONNA PARTY, which of course brilliantly and simultaneously alludes to Donna Reed and the Donner Party, who were forced to eat each other after becoming stranded in the mountains.

Okay, I’m starting to get bored. So eventually John and Donner get back together and decide to leave town and go work at a Renaissance Theme Park, leading to Donner’s line as he holds a guy up: “I need a lot of money. I gotta get me and a friend to a renaissance theme park.” By now the music is almost entirely religious choral music. John goes to the hotel where he had made a reservation and has a long conversation with the clerk, not really notable, expect that you start to notice that none of the people waiting in line behind John seem to mind waiting for this gay hustler to have some rambling and pointless conversation with the only hotel clerk on duty. Maybe I’m just a jaded, demanding New Yorker, but I wouldn’t be standing in that line all calm and patient and shit. I guess Californians really are totally chill.

So John and Donner now have enough money to get out of town, but our movie needs a tragic ending, does it not? I mean, how boring would it be if they just got on a bus and one of them wasn’t like killed or something? Snore-o-rama! So John makes the idiotic and unmotivated and out-of-character decision to have “one last date” in the few hours before their bus leaves, and gets beat up and killed while the choral music continues to play. Donner finds the body, is emotionally crushed, gets on the bus and leaves. The end. We find out during the credits that the radio announcer’s voice was that of Craig Bierko of The Thirteenth Floor.
< < < SPOILERS END

It had pluses and minuses. The pluses are definitely the two actors. Haas was great, but we’ve seen him be good [just not all that much], whereas Arquette we usually see be comic, so his performance was much more of a revelation. It’s too bad he didn’t get further as a dramatic actor. The camera direction was decent, and of course it’s a fascinating culture. On the minus side, the thing starts to lose interest as we realize that this is just a bunch of true hustler stories tied together into a loose narrative, which tends to make one lose interest in the narrative part, as it is clearly not the reason the movie exists. Furthermore, being a collection of hustler stories starts to distort the narrative, as all the encounters are somewhat notable, which starts to strain credulity after a while. For example, the large amount of times that our two heroes get beat up… if they’re getting beaten that much wouldn’t they choose to do something else? Just one or two encounters that pass completely without any special events would not have been boring—I personally would like to know what an average encounter is like—and would have gone far to improve the film’s credibility. So also would have been a slight dialing-down of the preciousness: the Afro blues. The church music. The black guy who just wants to help. The hotel room. The Christmas eve time period. That one last trick. Eventually it all builds up and becomes a bit too much, and viewers like me start to think: “Do I really have to watch all of this? Can’t I just fast-forward to the end?”

But this is the kind of criticism that comes because the movie was so promising. The first hour is interesting and very involving. It’s only as it winds to a close that it becomes ever more hard to believe and obviously contrived. I don’t ever want to see it again, but I’m glad I watched it once and I’m glad it’s out there. It’s just too bad it’s not better.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re gay or interested in gay hustlers for some other reason. Everyone else is safe to skip it.