Anatomy of a Sumbitch

A would-be auteur destroyed his future Overnight.

Overnight Screens Saturday and Sunday at the Cinematheque
As central characters go, Troy Duffy is a perfect ass.
As central characters go, Troy Duffy is a perfect ass.
Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana's fascinating documentary Overnight is a kind of instructional video about how to fail in show biz. Actually, that's put too gently. It's really about willful self-immolation, about letting raw ego and crazy delusion run amok, about driving friends and family into storms of rage. It's about getting your name on top of the all-time shit list and never working in any town again. To screw up at this epic level, it helps if you're a belligerent, short-fuse drunk convinced of your own genius. Even better if you like to scream through the telephone at Hollywood agents you barely know, shout down record producers, and act the loudmouthed punk to, say, Harvey Weinstein, the famously temperamental chieftain of Miramax Films.

Who's got it all? The complete package? As Smith and Montana's maddening and outlandishly funny portrait of a fool and his folly would have it, it's their former pal Troy Duffy, a churlish Boston bartender whose Cinderella career as the next Tarantino or Scorsese went down in flames as quickly as it rose. Invited to chronicle their difficult friend's rise to success, the filmmakers wound up instead performing this autopsy on his failures. Judging by the now mournful, now hilarious tone of the piece, these abused ex-friends don't think they're lucky to catch Duffy at his worst -- just that they're better informed these days about the depths of human behavior. Overnight might have been an act of sheer vengeance, but it's tempered by sympathy. At Sundance, movie buffs and industry insiders ate it up.

Were the dream and the promise too good to be true? No doubt. Back in 1996, Duffy knocked out a screenplay and managed to start a bidding war that landed him an improbable million-dollar deal with Miramax for a first movie, to be called Boondock Saints. While the trade papers marveled and Duffy twisted his bent-nosed mug into a sneer for photographers, publicists described the script as "Pulp Fiction with soul." Characteristically, the author called it "the best fucking project in Hollywood," the vehicle that would enable a poor kid from the mean streets "to conquer the world." Smitten, Weinstein went even further: The movie would get a $15-million budget, Duffy would direct it himself, and just for sweetener, Weinstein would buy a working-class Los Angeles saloon, Sloan's, for his new star-in-the-making. You know. Headquarters. That's still not all. Duffy's rock band, the Brood, would do the movie's soundtrack and score a major-label recording contract.

Pretty heady stuff for a self-absorbed rookie, who spent his evenings slamming shots at the bar and entertaining newfound industry friends, such as John Goodman, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Modine, and Mark Wahlberg. Pre-production, Duffy's reviews were glowing. Quoth the ever-insightful Wahlberg: "He's young and in touch with the shit." Troy's younger brother, Tate, was no less enthusiastic: "He's gonna be super-big because his mind is super-big."

But not as big as his ego. If you're still in your seat when the tide starts to turn against Troy Duffy, it's because you have a high tolerance for explosive tantrums, paranoid bitching, and ruthless narcissism. The sordid details of his implosion include Weinstein's bailout, a couple of botched recording deals, and a nasty meeting during which Duffy commands unpaid band members, brothers and partners (including Smith and Montana, who continue to shoot away), to "keep your mouths shut and do your fucking jobs." Eventually, Boondock Saints was picked up by a smaller company and shot (with Willem Dafoe and Irishman Billy Connolly as the leads) on half the original budget. But a sales trip to the Cannes Film Festival was a disaster. A recording session in Massachusetts degenerated into bickering. Even Duffy's afternoon with a group of Boston University film students provided another chance for him to rant: "They're the most putrid lot I can think of."

Even as doom draws near, Duffy continues to snarl, "Harvey Weinstein is afraid of me!" and pledges that "we'll show the cocksuckers; we'll show 'em all." Well, kind of. Saints showed in five U.S. theaters for one week in 2000 before it was dumped in the video bins. The band's dispute-plagued CD sold just 690 copies in six months, and the Brood was promptly dropped by the record company. At the end of this cautionary tale, Troy Duffy's hard-used collaborators are back where they started -- working menial jobs and wondering what might have been. Their Hollywood friends have vanished. Sloan's, the bar where they hung out in the brief glory days, is being dismantled, board by board. Their only legacy is this documentary.

As for Duffy, we can conclude only that he had a pretty good start on self-destruction before getting a whiff of success. Absent any aids to self-examination, save his idle boasting and a handy quart of bourbon, he became a blip on the Hollywood radar that quickly disappeared. It's unlikely that Weinstein or Wahlberg or Modine will even remember who he is three months from now. Because, while Overnight comes stuffed with life lessons, it doesn't offer a vision of the dawn.

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