Trainspotting
Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Kevin McKidd, Kelly MacDonald. Screenplay: John Hodge (based on the novel by Irvine Welsh).


Danny Boyle's movie achieves—at least for a while—the psychedelic high for which it clearly aims, but like the heroin fixes he vividly portrays, his film doesn't have much long-term impact. Ewan McGregor nails a charismatic turn as Mark Renton, a hyperactive, morally erratic street junkie who buzzes, smokes, and sprints around town even as his eyes start blearing and his frame thins out; he's like a 110-volt appliance in a 220-volt outlet.

He's also a kick in the pants to watch, and if Trainspotting's ultimate contribution to film is exposing McGregor to casting agents everywhere, we should all be grateful. Jonny Lee Miller also fascinates as Sick Boy, the most compellingly played of Renton's smack-addict buddies, even if he is ill-served by John Hodge's script. His crying scene over a dead baby's crib plays like Julianne Moore's post-custody-battle breakdown in Boogie Nights, a cheaply emotional scene foisted on a smart actor giving an otherwise strong performance.

Elsewhere, Hodge's script coalesces nicely with Boyle's visual sense, and sequences like Renton's plunge into "The Filthiest Toilet in Scotland" or that which unites three of the pals' same-night sexual exploits constitute vibrant filmmaking, if a bit gimmicky. In fact, Trainspotting is such an exhilarating entertainment for its first hour or so that the litany of bourgeois accoutrements (jobs, kids, lawns, big-screen TV's) that Renton reads over the opening sequence seem as stolid and distant a memory as they are for the characters in the movie.

Boyle and Hodge deserve the praise they have received for avoiding the perennial peril to drug addiction movies: of taking the spontaneity, the "fun," out of the habit in particular and the lifestyle in general. Without being honest about the rhapsodic highs of drug life, the inevitable paybacks and condemnations never come across as anything but knee-jerk proselytizing. And yet, when payback time does arrive in Trainspotting, the film is clear about the moral lassitude inherent in the characters' robberies, hypocrisies, and irresponsibilities. Nor does the movie depict heroin as some sort of "necessary evil" on the way to artistic glory, as the misbegotten The Basketball Diaries did.

What the film does succeed in saying about heroin is that the fun is undeniable but eventually a tired sport, a ticket to nowhere. Unfortunately, Trainspotting rides the same rail into dramatic oblivion. I'm not sure what happens that turns the film so turgid and uninflected toward the end, its stylistic "wildness" as surface-bound as it was all along but suddenly without the thrill. What gives?

I'm sure the argument could be made that the end of the film drags to achieve a sort of structural mimesis to drug addiction, eventually mindless of any concern or conflict outside of itself. I don't buy that argument because even those scenes that the filmmakers seem to intend as high drama in the last half-hour—a pub brawl, a two-kilo sale in a London hotel—are strangely flat and uninvolving.

The short-tempered Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle of Priest (and later The Full Monty), comes increasingly into focus as the film wears on, and that itself seems like a mistake; the character is too peripheral and broad in the film's beginning to involve us much in his climactic lashings out, even when their implications for Renton are dire and immediate.

In general, Trainspotting bizarrely allows Renton's friends more screen time after he has largely rejected them. Yes, they represent almost-literal ghosts from his addicted past—and possibly his addicted future—but they are also opaque creations we don't care much about. Worst of the lot is Ken McKidd's Tom, following a predictable arc regarding his friends' drug-use from conscientious objector to addiction and disease. Again, a whole moment in the film demands our investment in this character, but nothing in the film or the performance has earned it.

I suspect Trainspotting will not age well, but the film has a strong enough performance from McGregor and enough spunky verve that, as brisk entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Nothing wrong with verve, but I'm not convinced there's much more here than just that; "artistry" is not a concept that springs immediately to mind as the credits roll. The film may well survive as a cult hit, though the reasons for which some audiences will likely keep this film alive are probably much darker and altogether different from anything having to do with filmmaking. I'm still glad Boyle, Hodge, and company resist the urge to preach to their audience, but the dramatic dissipation with which they instead conclude their picture is not much to be thankful for. B


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Hodge

Other Awards:
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Picture
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Adapted Screenplay

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