- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

"Sometimes youre so confused and crazy, all you can think to do is go out and kill somebody." This is Dawn Lagarto, the unforgettable anti-heroine of the low-budget but razor-sharp and resourceful satirical hoax "Series 7: The Contenders," summarizing her outlook on life.
Despite the alarming nature of the sentiment, this confession reveals Dawn the desperate character, superbly impersonated by Brooke Smith, in an unguarded moment of reflection.
As the reigning, two-time champion of the not-so-far-fetched "reality" television series that shares the movies title, Dawn needs to be on her guard to survive a third cycle of shows. If she can prevail again, she gets to retire an undefeated legalized killer.
Having outdrawn or ambushed 10 randomly selected opponents in the earlier rounds, Dawn has five contenders to go. Certain factors could reduce her chances, despite an ultra-aggressive approach to competition.
For starters, Dawn is eight months pregnant. In a slightly more impassioned confession that also serves as psychological intimidation, she declares: "Theres nothing I wont do for my baby."
You believe her. Indeed, you believe every expression of monstrous self-righteousness and self-pity articulated by Dawn and her rivals in the course of the movie. Capturing and preserving the self-justifying idioms popularized by the mass media is one of the films most consistent and witty feats.
The producers perversely have brought Dawn and the TV crews a video cameraman shadows the activities of every contender to her hometown, apocryphal Newbury, Conn., doubled somewhat perversely by Danbury, the Connecticut hometown of writer-director Daniel Minahan, a talented apostate from TV tabloid journalism.
Mr. Minahan is scarcely the first or only independent filmmaker to jump on reality shows as a ripe source of social humor.
A team based in suburban Vienna made a witty and appealing romantic farce titled "Kiss and Tell" on a similar theme two years ago but evidently failed to secure timely theatrical distribution.
Mr. Minahan can claim the honor of nailing a crass and manipulative genre with admirable gusto and accuracy while pushing the logic of the genre to a plausible, depraved extreme.
The setup gets more outrageous but effective as Dawn canvasses Newbury, sizes up her seemingly overmatched competition and pays a few social calls, notably a hostile visit to her estranged mother.
Bitter words are exchanged, and Dawn pulls a gun, underlining her intention to steal her estranged sisters car. On the favorable side, Dawns little niece gives her a hug and says, "I love you," creating somewhat harrowing expectations of a copycat Dawn in the family.
Four of the opponents are strangers. Michael Kaycheck as Tony, an unemployed factory worker, rationalizes that he can set a good reverse example of "the right way" for his adopted brood; he gives the producers a bit of the O.J. getaway spectacle.
Marylouise Burke as Connie, a middle-aged emergency-room nurse, emerges as sneaky competition; she relents long enough to deliver Dawns baby, arriving a bit sooner than expected during a showdown.
Richard Venture as grizzled Franklin, a trailer-park recluse, cultivates conspiracy theories. The continuity betrays a few ragged places while pitting him against Merritt Weaver as Lindsay, a high school overachiever whose high-pressure parents encourage a deadly hobby. (Donna Hanover, the estranged spouse of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, plays the gung-ho mother.)
The fifth opponent throws a great deal of suspicion on the "random" draw. Glenn Fitzgeralds defeatist Jeff is a terminal case, doomed by testicular cancer and haunted by a high-school romance with Dawn.
In fact, they were the school outcasts of their period, collaborators on a gothic video inspired by the rock song "Love Will Tear Us Apart (Again)." Mr. Minahan keeps ringing changes off the reunion of Dawn and Jeff that also allow him to suggest that "Series 7" is an exploitation chronicle without end.
Just when you think the summary of a final installment is around the corner, postscripts start proliferating. The contest has to go into a "Sudden Death Overtime" with dramatized facsimiles of Dawn and Jeff and other interested parties in order to achieve closure of a sort.
Most of the cast members have been seen in other movies, on television or on the stage. (Mr. Venture was with Arena Stage for a couple of years, for example.) Nevertheless, they remain in a kind of versatile but anonymous zone that allows their performances to creep up on you with delightful comic impact.
Not that the forthright Miss Smith can be confused with a shy boots. She has been a fleeting loaded weapon in various small roles, most conspicuously as the vociferous kidnap victim in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Dawn could establish her as a humorous powerhouse. Its certainly more fun watching her go to the devil than Hilary Swank in "Boys Dont Cry."
Miss Smith can shift from menacing to yielding moods with formidable dexterity. She may be better equipped to reconcile emotional contradictions than any other new face on the American screen.

Four out of four stars

TITLE: "Series 7: The Contenders"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and graphic violence in a satirical context; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Daniel Minahan. Cinematography by Randy Drummond. Music by Girls Against Boys

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes


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