In Search and Destroy, Griffin Dunne plays Martin, a wormy little bush-league promoter in Boca Raton, Florida. The town's name translates as "Mouth of the Rat," and Martin does seem like something that crawled out of such a place. He owes thousands in back taxes, he's on the outs with his wife (Rosanna Arquette), and he has no prospects. All of this holds far less interest for him, however, than his current obsession, which is to obtain the movie rights to a novel he admires, and by this project make his mark in the world.
The tome in question is Daniel Strong, a work which dramatizes the philosophy of Dr. Luthor Waxling (Dennis Hopper), a late-night infomercial self-help guru. Without a cent to his name or any experience in movies, Martin absurdly goes to see Dr. Waxling, and is, of course, humiliatingly rebuffed. This painful venture does, however, yield Martin an alliance with Waxling's receptionist (Illeana Douglas), a pretty, guileless young woman with aspirations as a screenwriter. She is far less an idealist than Martin, though--she's written a horror script called Dead World featuring a monster who kills with a "giant penis claw" (she, in other words, has a future in the movies).
The purpose of describing this early section of Search and Destroy is to give an idea of what I mean when I say that it's after this point that the movie starts to turn weird. Martin and his new friend travel to New York, where they soon become entangled with a pair of shady financiers (Christopher Walken and John Turturro). The film then turns into a sort of psychological thriller, with Martin at the center of a flurry of irrational violence that seems to come out of nowhere.
Or, rather, out of nowhere but the left field of dramatist's desperation; if you can't think of an ending, shed a little blood. Screenwriter Michael Almereyda, adapting Howard Korder's play, can't do any better because, for all the film's quite amusing surface eccentricity, under the skin, Search and Destroy is just like all the other recent satires (The Player, Swimming With Sharks) about young men trying to break into the movie business--they're always wretched weasels who suppose themselves to be visionaries, and don't see that they're being corrupted without a struggle. All of them involve violence and all of them have an easy, "ironic" twist ending.
There's no denying that Search and Destroy is too odd and unpredictable to be without appeal. The director, the artist David Salle in his feature debut, comes up with some fine strange gags, and there's a good comic score by Elmer Bernstein. The actors dig into their freaky roles with relish, and one of them, the too-little-known Illeana Douglas (she was De Niro's hapless pickup in the remake of Cape Fear), actually manages to generate a sympathetic response. There are also riotous cameos by Martin Scorsese and Tahnee Welch.
Whatever its entertainment value, however, it becomes clear long before Search and Destroy is half over that it's not going to add up to anything satisfying. Still, any movie that includes a scene of Christopher Walken stepping up to the mike in a Japanese restaurant and singing a lounge-act version of "Red River Valley" is probably worth a look.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.