News flash: The American public makes people famous for all the wrong reasons: murder, sex, scandal. This is a bad thing. Most newly discovered "celebrities" eventually try to spin this fame to their advantage, subverting everything good and holy along the way. They frequently get away with it on some level, thanks to a culture more interested in shifting the blame than, say, in upholding truth, justice or the American way. Shocking.
Such are the "revelations" of 15 Minutes, a chaotic, underdeveloped, frenzied film starring Robert De Niro, Edward Burns, Kelsey Grammer and Melina Kanakaredes. Writer-director John Herzfeld should know a thing or two about fleeting fame. First, there's his own, which -- if life were fair -- would last no longer than this most mediocre outing stays at the box office. Then, there's the fact that he should have been required by some higher power to disclose -- and above the title at that -- that he was the pen behind such memorable made-for-TV fare as Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story and The Preppie Murder. Where was Herzfeld's concern about society back when he was delivering those sordid stories into our living rooms? If you're going to get as self-righteous as Herzfeld does in 15 Minutes -- and you can be construed as having contributed to the problems you pretend to be addressing -- then you'd better be prepared to do a little explaining. Or a least make a profound statement about our culture. He does neither.
15 Minutes is the story of two Eastern European criminals (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) who come to America to collect their half of the loot from a robbery gone bad. When Roden discovers that his best friend has spent all of the cash in America while he languished in a European prison, he flips out and kills said friend and his wife. Sidekick Taktarov, a movie buff fond of using "Frank Capra" as an alias, catches the whole gory mess on his newly stolen video camera.
Complications ensue. Wrinkle No. 1: An illegal European national sees the whole thing from a crack in the bedroom door and escapes out the window, but leaves behind her wallet, with all her identification. The crime drama begins. Wrinkle No. 2: The partners in crime decide to torch the apartment in what one calls a "bohemian barbecue." Enter low-key arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Burns) and hotshot homicide detective Eddie Flemming (De Niro). The crime drama is complicated by media and fame.
Roden, inspired by an episode of The Jerry Springer Show that he catches in his fleabag hotel room and a newsstand peek at a People magazine with Flemming and his latest high-profile collar on the cover, decides that the most beautiful thing about America is that no one here is responsible for what they do. He decides to kill a few more people, get famous by selling his friend's videos of the crimes to tabloid TV reporter Robert Hawkins (yes, Kelsey Grammer actually can play a character other than Frasier and makes as good a one-dimensional sleaze as he does a one-dimensional pompous windbag), and then manipulate the media and the justice system to his own advantage. Only the media-challenged Warsaw and the media-savvy Flemming stand in his way.
The interesting parts of 15 Minutes deal with how cops and fire department officials deal with public perception, but there simply isn't enough meat here to sink your teeth into. (During a climactic scene, one impassioned cop turns to Grammer's character and tells him he should be ashamed of himself. I got chills.) De Niro listlessly walks through his role as a troubled cop who enjoys getting the bad guys and keeping his position as media darling. (In case we don't understand that he's in bed with the media, a woefully unnecessary Kanakaredes shows up as his reporter fiancée, solidifying the tie.) Burns, on the other hand, shows real fire in his portrayal of a man who is good at his job and wants nothing of the spotlight, but finds himself suffocating on the other side of the looking glass all the same.
Early on, the film's promotional materials posed the question, "Why are you still watching?" Without anything approaching a thought-provoking discussion about justice and the media, no script to speak of, and only one good performance to boot, that question seems almost as prophetic as Warhol.