200 Cigarettes isn’t just the best, most essential New Year’s Eve movie because it’s the only New Year’s Eve movie in a genre that tried to expand by bringing us the prosaically titled New Year’s Eve (part of the same series that thrust the slop that is Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day upon us). It holds the crown because of just how succinctly it captures the disappointment of the holiday as the ebb and flow of the night’s events unfold.
As the fifth movie produced by MTV Films, 200 Cigarettes possessed some of the residual “edginess” of a brand that was still ahead of the curve on music and trends. And predicting the people’s need for a go-to film to watch each year when the dreaded NYE rolls around is perhaps the kindest act MTV has ever performed for its formerly more embryonic audience.
As for the symbiosis of music and cinema when MTV is involved, the fact that the movie takes place as the final day of 1981 comes to a close permits plenty of opportunity for staples of the time to play throughout. From The Ramones’ “I Don’t Care” to Roxy Music’s “More Than This” (that’s right, 200 Cigarettes used it before Lost in Translation), the zeitgeist that was New York City at that time is further enhanced by its aural tone. And then, of course, there’s plenty of Elvis Costello, since he’s a pretty integral part of the plotline.
As screenwriter Shana Larsen’s only script (it’s sort of a Helen Childress phenomenon in that sense), the interwoven tales of an ensemble cast that puts Prêt-à–Porter to shame each recount some form of buildup that’s bound for a letdown. Take, for example, Kevin (Paul Rudd), who has recently been broken up with by his rather castrating girlfriend, Ellie (Janeane Garofalo, who always plays castrating types to perfection), and is now spending the eve of the New Year with his longtime friend, Lucy (Courtney Love–further proof MTV is involved). As Kevin whines throughout the night, he touches upon something that none of us can deny when it comes to the pressures of this singular night of the year: “It’s the obligation to enjoy yourself. That’s what does it. Every year, it’s the same, desperate scrambling around to surround yourself with as many people as possible, go to some stupid party, pretend to be happy, when really your girlfriend just left you, and you have no career.” Yes, there’s nothing like New Year’s to put all the things about your life that aren’t working out into a very sharp perspective.
Except, of course, unless you’re slightly on the younger side like Val (Christina Ricci) and her best friend, Stephie (Gaby Hoffmann), in for the night from Ronkokoma (as made immediately evident by the accents). While Val is wide-eyed and ready to take on whatever the city brings now that they’ve seemed to arrive at the wrong address in the East Village–of which Stephie cautions, “Just promise we won’t go past Avenue A. I know a girl who got raped on B”–Stephie is terrified, killing the entire vibe of Val’s pluckiness.
For every suggestion Val makes, Stephie has a negative answer, completely convinced that, “It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re fucked.” But Val seems determined. This is the East Village of the early 80s, after all, how could one not be thrilled? And when she insists that they might meet some new people, Stephie balks, “Val, you don’t just meet people on the street. Even when you go to a party, you don’t meet people. You just stand around, talking to the ones you already know.” One can’t argue with her there.
Val’s cousin, Monica (Martha Plimpton), the hostess waiting for Godot when it comes to her party actually starting via the presence of more than one guest, is equally as put off by the night. Because obviously no one puts themselves at greater risk for swallowing a bitter pill than the person who decides to throw a party on New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, the only character in the story seeming to even be remotely where she wants to be on NYE is Cindy (Kate Hudson), who has finagled a date with Jack (Jay Mohr) after, unbeknownst to him, losing her virginity to him a few nights prior. It soon becomes clear to Cindy, naive though she may be, that Jack has an ulterior agenda in consenting to spend time with her, and very little interest in actually getting to know anything about her. But somewhere out there, even closer than she thinks, is a man named Tom (Casey Affleck) just as hungry for love as she is, convinced in the first half of the night that Val is the one for him. Because, in truth, no other night of the year gets you in the mindset that anyone will do.
With the tag line, “It’s 11:59 on New Year’s Eve. Do you know where your date is?,” 200 Cigarettes speaks to the forced desire within all of us to “make something happen” so that we can feel a level of aliveness that we haven’t been able to for the entire year. And every now and again, when the night isn’t a total wash, it just might deliver right when you’ve decided to give up all faith on another banal and/or especially terrible year.