The most common complaint about movies adapted from novels is that they’re not faithful enough to their source material. Joel Schumacher’s “Twelve” is so weirdly and destructively faithful that it seems like it an experimental film designed to show people why excessively dutiful adaptations are a bad idea. Schumacher took author Nick McDonell’s heavily stylized narration (which you can get a taste of here) and recreated it exactly in the film. So while we see Chace Crawford walking the streets of New York City as drug dealer White Mike we hear narrator Kiefer Sutherland say things like “White Mike has never smoked a cigarette in his life,” or “White Mike loves rooftops.”
The idea that film is a visual medium is one of the fundamental principles of cinema. Students learn on the first day of film school that their work should show, not tell. Schumacher’s structure throws that out the window. Even if we can plainly see what White Mike’s wearing, Sutherland tells us anyway. Instead of watching the characters perform actions that would explicate their characters, Sutherland announces how they feel. It flies in the face of every moviemaking convention. The effect is jarring, like trying to watch a film with an aspect ratio that’s taller than it is wide.
Most critics who saw “Twelve” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival singled out the narration as a particularly bad element of the film. But it’s so unusual, and so obviously an intentional (if misguided) stylistic choice, that it’s sort of perversely fascinating. A week after I saw the movie, I’m still trying to figure out just what Schumacher was getting at with it. But to hazard a guess as to what he’s up to, you need to first know what the rest of the film is about.
The aforementioned White Mike is our hero, a teenage drug dealer and high school dropout who sells weed to his former classmates. Over the course of one busy weekend, a group of his rich, spoiled clients feud and flirt and prepare for a big party thrown by the coolest and prettiest girl in school, Sara Ludlow (Esti Ginzburg). Drugs are consumed (a new one called twelve is particularly addictive), crushes are sparked, kids are murdered, and parents are noticeably absent, mentally if not physically.
Through it all Sutherland talks. Sometimes he even explains inconsequential details like what the characters are wearing or what they have in their pockets; other times he talks over their dialogue, which may be Schumacher’s way of telling us that these kids are so stupid that they’re not even worth listening to.
It’s worth noting that Sutherland isn’t a onscreen character within the story but rather a voice narrating from a place of omniscience, an outside perspective on a bunch of kids without any perspective of their own. Since most of them are so utterly controlled by peer influence and so utterly incapable of making their own decisions, Sutherland’s voice could also represent a personification of the teens’ hive mind: they move, think, dress, and act as one.
I don’t know. I do know Schumacher’s intent would be easier to read if his tone was clearer; “Twelve” could give even its most screwed up character a run for their money in the identity crisis department. It fluctuates constantly from a satire of the brainless and aimless to a tragedy of poor neglected innocents.
In one scene Schumacher might make fun of their misshapen values (“Yo, my dad told me if I didn’t get into Harvard I have to go to Dartmouth!”) and in the next he might portray their self-destructive behavior as a sad cry for help. Does Schumacher hate these characters or pity them? Some scenes are very funny; others are so incredibly melodramatic that they’re unintentionally funny. (“Hey, there’s 50 Cent as a drug dealer! Hey, there’s 50 Cent acting menacing! Hey there’s 50 Cent showing his naked butt!”)
It’s a strange mix: imagine if a filmmaker tried to combine “Taxi Driver” and (Schumacher’s) “D.C. Cab” into a single film and you start to get the idea. White Mike’s journey is supposed to be the emotional centerpiece of the film, but Crawford is just as skin-deep pretty as the rest of the cast. The only person in the film with anything to say is Sutherland, and he never shuts up.
Give Schumacher credit for making a movie that is, at the very least, unique in its failure. If nothing else, he’s created the ultimate anti-adaptation, one that will surely be the “How Not To Translate A Book To the Screen” example in film school textbooks for years to come.