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Candy's dandy, liquor's quicker

Hard Candy fails to push buttons

On the one hand, there are the idea filmmakers. Their work encourages post-viewing discussion. They tend to make their audience reflect on their own world rather than just some glossy, manufactured film reality.

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Then there are the button-pushers. Filmmakers like Paul Haggis (Crash) and Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) manufacture ridiculous scenarios and absurdly one-dimensional characters whom they manipulate like finger puppets, forcing them to do their ludicrous bidding to prove some muddled, fuzzy point about the world's corruption.

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Films in the button-pushing ranks tend to think they are provocative but work mainly by taking a moderately scandalous concept and running with it. Their intent is not to provoke conversation, but to get a rise out of people, turn date conversation rancid and drive an even bigger wedge in the already Grand Canyon chasm that separates men and women.

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Idea films offer a multiplicity of interpretations, but button-pushers confound. They tend to feature surprise plot twists and cheap thrills over deep thoughts. Hard Candy, directed by music video veteran David Slade and TV writer Brian Nelson, is a button-pusher from top to bottom. From its suggestively lurid title to its story line centered on a teenage waif who falls into a pedophile's sticky trap, it is a film designed to first titillate and then thrill and, finally, leave its audience exiting the theater in a foggy stupor.

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Hard Candy starts off well in its convincingly icky portrait of a slick, silver-tongued devil — 32-year-old professional photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), a certified perv who knows just how to disarm and appeal to his teen prey.

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Jeff meets 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) online and then for coffee, snowing her with his taste in cool music and his mastery of the ironic, jaded teenage attitude. His air of hipster sophistication is dead-on, just the kind of shtick an impressionable, eager-to-be-seen-as-different teen would find incredibly seductive.

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Hard Candy is smart in showing how teenage girls can fluctuate between annoying narcissism and babe-in-the-woods vulnerability. It's just too bad that after this promising opening, Hard Candy offers so little that is plausible or insightful about human behavior.

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Back at his Hollywood Hills pimped-out crib decorated with his photographs of sexed-up jailbait, Jeff serves inhibition-loosening cocktails and prompts, rather than pressures, Hayley to pose for his camera.

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As icky as kiddie-crazed Jeff may be, many viewers will be just as creeped out by Hayley's brutal precociousness and ability to turn off her empathy reflex when Hard Candy's tables turn. A little red riding hood courtesy of the cyber age, Hayley is that familiar archetype — an apparent innocent hiding a secret agenda.

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Once Hayley has pried out Jeff's true intent in luring her to his remote lair, Hard Candy quickly detours into a lurid shock fest along the lines of pseudo-feminist avenger fables like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45.

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Though it is certain some male viewers will see this as an expression of female rage and desire, Hard Candy actually feels less like a feminist revenge tale than the weird fantasy of an especially immature male mind that can only imagine predatory men as literal pedophiles. Instead of casting blame on the culture at large for being juiced up on underage hotties, Hard Candy acts as if men who dig underage girls are as remote as trolls living under bridges. Have Slade and Nelson checked out the Internet lately?

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But like any button-pusher, Hard Candy isn't designed to make its audience feel that their own world and culture have been shaken a little. It's designed to reassure viewers that all the monsters are safely locked up on screen where they can never harm us.



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