“Johns,” nominally directed by Scott Silver (the credited screenwriter of “8 Mile,” doesn’t glamorize (male) prostitution, but sentimentalizes as much as any 1890s portrait of prostitutes with hearts of gold. Perhaps there are some, and Lukas Haas, the former child star of “Witness” and “The Wizard of Loneliness” had attained the age of 20, if not maturity when he played the sweet-tempered gay hustler, Donner. Donner is in love with his typically unreliable mentor, John (David Arquette) who has a girlfriend and only has sex with men for money. It is the same sort of hopeless infatuation among young men on the edge of homelessness that River Phoenix had for Keanu Reeves in “My Private Idaho” (without a Falstaffian adult companion in non-revels). That is, it is another cliche. Then there’s the “one last trick,” which is right up there with “one last heist.” (Street hustler careers end at an earlier age than burglars.)
The symbolism of a martyr born on Christmas Day, who later looks like he’d been wearing a crown of thorns is excruciating. Perhaps there are hustlers as attached to their “lucky sneak[er]s” that are going to carry them to better things as John is, but I find it hard to believe that there are any who talk so much about them. They are stolen at the start of the movie, as John is sleeping in a park and “everybody knows you keep your money in them,” but they still take up too much of the movie’s dialog.
“Users don’t take from other users” similarly seems too therapy-talk for a hustler, and Donner looks too scruffy to have a regular client like “Manny” (Elliot Gould).
There is a side plot about drug money that John has not delivered that delivers unexpected humor—first in the realm of lower arithmetic, and later in what happens when Donner meets with the low-level thugs who have more than threatened John.
There is another side plot involving a swank hotel where the homeless John wants to spend one day (his 21st birthday which is also Christmas) in luxury, and a front desk man Paul (Richard Kind) whom one might expect to humiliate John but who instead treats him with the exquisite courtesy of John McGiver’s Tiffany’s salesman in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
The street (Santa Monica Blvd.) looks sufficiently uninviting, though not as dangerous as the streets in “Pixote” or “Our Lady of the Assassins.” (LA isn’t in Latin America, you say? Are you sure about that?)
Although he movie is about street hustlers, there are no scenes of even simulated sex. Although drug sales are important background, the hustlers do not do any drugs during the course of Christmas Eve.
Arquette’s brash, overly self-assured master of the racket and Haas’s doe-eyed innocent are not particularly novel types, but the actors perform their roles well. There is no visual flair (especially obvious to someone who has been thinking of the noirish visual compositions and care taken in the look of every scene of Fritz Lang movies all day, as I have), and the Christ symbolism. Actually, there is another black Christ figure, also named John (Keith David. memorable from “Clockers”), as are John’s johns (clients—the title’s pun).
“Johns” is not terrible (like “Midnight Cowboy” with its savvy manipulator and confused alien to the scene, though of interest mostly for anyone wondering how Lukas Haas grew up looking (in a word: soulful).
The DVD has a commentary track with the two lead actors (who spent time on the street researching their role). They enjoy themselves more than their characters did, and are more interesting to listen to than Scott Silver trying to explain his haphazard direction of actors who seem to be mostly improvising (or, worse still, underlining more then heavy-handed Christ symbolism! )
(BTW, “Camelot” is a theme park in Missouri. Donner wants John to leave the mean streets and go there with him.)
© 13 December 2004, Stephen O. Murray