Ian Hart is the best thing Dirt has going for it. As Don Konkey, a schizophrenic paparazzo who will do absolutely anything he’s asked to by his editor-in-chief at a down-and-dirty Hollywood scandal sheet, he brings back X-rated pictures of the quick (rooftop midnight hot-tub sex), the dead (the corpse of an OD’d starlet), and the merely hypocritical (the power couple, being far too fast-track to mess with pregnancy or parturition, who pick up a surrogate baby as if the kid were a baguette). But he is also reluctant to open his mouth, because the words he speaks have been known to turn into worms. And he almost never takes his hat off, because the sky has a way of drizzling blood drops. And going to the drugstore is a trial, because aspirin talks back at him and prescription bottles burst into song. Even going to bed is kind of necrophiliac, because there’s a girl ghost who likes to cuddle.
This is not neurotic shtick of a Monk-ish sort. Don is one sick puppy—with, as it happens, a very dead cat. When he isn’t up a tree, snapshooting hanky-panky, we have no idea what he’ll do, say, or think next, and neither does he. Whether we are meant to understand his sickness as a metaphor for false consciousness and bad faith in tabloid journalism I couldn’t tell you after only three hours. But Hart, whom you may recall from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy, or as a professor of dark arts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, gives us a character we can’t stop watching and wondering about. And Dirt is never more interesting to look at than when it hallucinates on Don’s behalf.
Whereas you will certainly recognize the editor-in-chief—the one who tells Don where to go—from hundreds of Friends and three Screams. For the purposes of Dirt, Courteney Cox channels more of Gale Weathers, Wes Craven’s TV reporter, than of Monica Geller, the sitcom hysteric. Her Lucy Spiller, part Sphinx, part Slinky, as glam as Anna Wintour and as gotcha as Bonnie Fuller, actually seems to believe that the lowest of denominators and the basest of instincts add up to a higher truth, “preferably with photographs.” Of course, she must report to a publisher, Jeffrey Nordling, with a taste for jailbait, and an owner, Timothy Bottoms, who bought Dirt and hired Lucy only to improve his social standing. But neither of them has read Marcel Proust. Nor is it likely that you would find in their bedrooms a vibrator, a stun gun, and the occasional rock musician.
Let’s see—blackmail, action stars, painkillers, tattletales, erotomania, cocaine addiction, car wrecks, bubble baths … the usual. Professional as it is, like a Parisian streetwalker, there is nothing in Dirt to look at or think about that we haven’t looked at and decided not to think about before, except Ian Hart’s hallucinations. A decade ago, Mariel Hemingway starred in Central Park West as the editor of a Condé Nastie sort of slick whose table of contents included John-John softball and helicopter sex. Téa Leoni starred in The Naked Truth as a newly divorced and hyperkinetic photojournalist reduced from getting nominated for a Pulitzer to whining at a sleazy tabloid called The Comet. David Alan Grier starred in The Preston Episodes as an African-American university professor signed on as house grammarian at a gossip magazine called Stuff. Nobody wanted any of these programs, although Téa Leoni hung on longer than Hemingway and Grier. We seem, as a nation and a Nielsen sample, to prefer our scandal sheets in supermarkets, with real aliens, rather than on television screens, with actors.
Dirt wants us to believe that Courteney/Lucy has feelings that get hurt. On one occasion and very briefly, she seems to experience a soupçon of regret and a smidgen of shame. So we know that Dirt is fiction. I’ve stood in the lobby of places like the midtown Fox building, and I’ve looked into the faces of the people who work there as they emerge from elevators and grope toward sunlight, and I’ve hoped for a shadow of shame on a single face. But there is not an Ian Hart among them. They are proud of themselves.