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Is 15 Minutes of fame enough?

I’ve been wondering for days now why film critics have decided with unusual uniformity to hate Robert de Niro’s new movie, “15 Minutes” so intensely. De Niro, with his usual vigor, plays a New York detective in the midst of the action. Edward Burns, a tall, good-looking arson inspector, plays his sidekick. The film’s title is an ironic play on Andy Warhol’s wry comment on the upsurge of celebrity in our time: that before long, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. I’ve never understood the deep meaning of this ironic observation as most of the people in the world are not destined to be famous for 15, 10, or even two minutes.

But the film is held together by a craving of two Eastern European criminals (one Russian, one Czech) for fame of any sort in the United States. They don’t care if they have to kill or maim, but fame in the U.S. is apparently the highest goal a man can reach. They dredge the lower depths of the New York world and, in addition to call girls, these two real Eastern European refugees discover American television at its most spectacularly unappealing. But apparently these two thoroughly repugnant criminals from Eastern Europe somehow violate the sense of fairness of U.S. film critics, who feel that two refugees from Communism should somehow be attractive.

This craving to see our ex-adversaries in flattering terms is bizarre, and can only speak for a feeling of alienation on the part of the film critics. Kelsey Grammer — straight from American TV — plays an American television man whose thirst for the sensational is unquenchable. If there is any component in “15 minutes,” which is specifically unflattering to the U.S., it is Kelsey Grammer’s character and his “Top News” on American television.

Written and directed by John Herzfeld, this week “15 Minutes” had box office returns second only to Julia Roberts’ and Brad Pitt’s “The Mexican,” America’s leading movie of the moment, moviegoers apparently not paying much heed to what they read in the press.

Our Eastern European pair (both convincingly acted) has no compunction about filming a “snuff” movie for sale to a TV network for a million dollars. But things don’t go smoothly for our hoodlums and the movie they produce is mostly mayhem. The critic who called it a “glum and sadistic mess” is going too far, however. “Sadistic,” perhaps, but “glum,” not at all. In fact it is nothing short of a superb “action” movie. The cops chase the murderers. The media chase the cops. And the whole thing escalates into a first-class firestorm in which tabloid television meets gritty crime drama. The reality of crime meets the surreal world of television hype and fast-moving fame.

America has always had the reputation of being a land of boundless opportunity and this has been true for many activities beyond the law. “I love America!” cries one of the Eastern European thugs, once he’s gotten his bearings. “No one is responsible for what they do!” He has worked out that with insanity pleas, no double jeopardy, and a prevailing mindset that he finds favorable to criminals that it seems to him he should have a rather comfortable life in America.

Such is the devotion to movies of “Oleg,” the second visiting criminal, that he tells everyone his name is Frank Capra. Unfortunately his first assignment is directing a “snuff” film, while his buddy murders a former colleague and his wife to settle a score from the “old country.” They also set an apartment on fire to disguise the murders and are accompanied (whenever it is safe) by Kelsey Grammer, host of a U.S. tabloid television show, “Top Story.”

There is not much sympathy in this film for the way the American mass media cover violent crime. On the other hand, here as elsewhere in the popular press, a quotation which has come up frequently recently: “If it bleeds it leads.”