For "Party Monster," filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato converted their documentary of the same name, about the rise and fall of early '80s club king Michael Alig, to a bold and engrossing drama. It's notable for Macaulay Culkin's return to the screen in a striking high-risk portrayal of Alig that is bound to leave many of Culkin's "Home Alone" fans dumbfounded and even repelled.
Bailey and Barbato have wisely not asked their audiences to relate to the decadent downtown Manhattan club scene and have refrained from pleading for Alig and his mentor, James St. James, whose book "Disco Bloodbath" is the basis of this film. They present Alig as a deceptively angelic-looking Midwesterner who lands in New York with no particular job skills or connections but plenty of imagination and nerve. He meets Seth Green's James, who bills himself as the "original club kid," and persuades James to teach him how to be "fabulous." James is a rich kid living on a trust fund, but he and Michael are alike in that they are effeminate young gays driven to create a world of their own in defense against harsh reality. James is a flamboyant gender-bender with Tallulah Bankhead mannerisms, which Michael is swift to emulate in his own style. James has the financial security to simply hang out on the party-celebrity circuit, but Michael, who must survive by his wits, has an inspiration: to persuade Peter Gatien (Dylan McDermott), proprietor of the Limelight club, to underwrite him as a regular party-giver. A born promoter, Michael swiftly surpasses James' renown and establishes the Limelight as the premier venue for young people with a taste for the outré.
Michael has the panache and chutzpah of another gay party-giver from humble Midwestern origins in an earlier, more glamorous era, the charismatic Elsa Maxwell. As Maxwell's conquest of international cafe society fizzed with champagne and fine wines and sparkled to the end of her long life, Michael's raucous scene is fueled by a mind-boggling cornucopia of drugs. In short, Michael's descent commences with his rapid ascent.
The filmmakers focus on Michael and James' domestic life even more than on their lively times at the Limelight. Michael gathers around him a hunky lover (Wilmer Valderrama), an airport baggage handler he has transformed into the Limelight's DJ; a pair of groupies (Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne) he attracts while on a promotional appearance in Dallas; and most ominously Angel (Wilson Cruz), the group's drug supplier.
Taking a page from the then-recently deceased Andy Warhol, Michael promotes everyone as a superstar, beginning with a perpetually wasted drag queen entertainer (Marilyn Manson). Michael's attractive mother (the estimable Diana Scarwid) is an amusingly naive airhead; she has the movie's best line: "I came in a stretch limo, and I'm not leaving on bus!"
For much of the time, Michael and James carry on as archly as characters in a Restoration play. While James has as a detachment that may well be the key to his survival, Michael is essentially a hollow man, a budding sociopath turned into a monster by drugs. Although Gatien is soon swayed by escalating profits, his wife and partner Natasha (Mia Kirshner) sees Michael from the start for what he is: a pathetic creature too scared to face reality.
Culkin does not ask sympathy for this devil and instead makes him chilling, an individual whose destructiveness outstrips his creativity and daring. Green, in contrast, has the opportunity to show James as a three-dimensional human being ultimately connected to reality for all his excesses.
With its outlandish costumes and tacky settings, "Party Monster" is a time capsule for its era and locale. For all its decadence, it moves effectively from outrageous camp humor to stark pathos and in the process manages to be oddly touching. As for Culkin, he succeeds as an adult actor in completely unexpected ways.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Extreme drug taking; some nudity, language
Macaulay Culkin ... Michael Alig
Seth Green ... James St. James
Dylan McDermott ... Peter Gatien
Marilyn Manson ... Christina
Wilmer Valderrama ... Keoki
Chloë Sevigny ... Gitsie
A Strand Releasing release of a ContentFilm presentation in association with Fortissimo Films Sales of a Killer Films/John Wells and A World of Wonder co-production. Writers-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato; based on the book "Disco Bloodbath" by James St. James. Producers Jon Marcus, Bradford Simpson, Christine Vachon, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato. Executive producers Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner, Edward R. Pressman, John Schmidt, Sofia Sondervan, John Wells. Cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci. Editor Jeremy Simmons. Music Jimmy Harry. Costumes Michael Wilkinson. Production designer Andrea Stanley. Art director Laura Ballinger. Set decorator Susan Ogu. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun