15 Minutes

“15 Minutes” is an ugly, depraved movie that is not so much an indictment of American celebrity culture as it is a worthless pile of trash.

It is not without irony that the film starts out like a joke, since that’s what it turns into: A Russian and Czech sneak into America. They just got out of prison for robbery and are looking for a friend of theirs in New York City who should have their share of the money. Alas, said friend has spent said money, so the Czech (Karl Roden) stabs him and his girlfriend to death and sets the place on fire. The Russian (Oleg Taktarov), who has a fascination with American movies, has stolen a camcorder and films the whole thing.

After the post-murder fire, arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) shows up and bumps into homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro). The two have no reason to be working together, yet they do; Jordy’s interest in police work goes unexplained. For whatever reason, though, they become buddies, kind of, and work together, more or less, when the two Europeans kill a hooker in a hotel room.

It should be noted that the hard-drinkin’ Eddie is a local celebrity, due to his frequent cooperation with tabloid TV host Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer). He’s also about to propose marriage to legitimate newswoman Nicolette (Melina Kanakaredes).

But back to the main story, which is that the mean Czech guy has watched enough daytime TV between killings to hatch a plan: He and the Russian will videotape everything they do, get caught, plead insanity, go to a mental institution instead of prison, overcome their faked insanity, sell the movie rights, and become millionaires.

Never mind the millions of holes in that scheme; the movie wants us to take it as a satire of the way we Americans always turn our culprits into victims. But “15 Minutes” is no parody. It barely has a sense of humor at all, let alone one sly enough to pull off a dark, ironic theme like that. No, in this movie everyone is obsessed with getting their 15 minutes of fame, but not in a parodical way. Just a cynical one.

It gets more ludicrous as it goes, leading up to a finale that includes hostage-taking, reappearances of old characters and unconsequenced gunfire. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a truckload of monkeys had overturned in the midst of the brouhaha, so fractured and crazy was the scene already. (“Sure,” I would have thought. “Why not monkeys?”) I’ll give the movie this, anyway: At least it’s not boring.

De Niro and Burns are good actors (better than the insipid Euro-trash who play the Euro-trash, anyway). They clearly are taking their work here seriously, which is a shame. With the right direction and a more structured screenplay (both are the fault of John Herzfeld), “15 Minutes” could have been a marvelously thought-provoking satire. Instead, it’s just vile.

D+ (; R, frequent harsh profanity, abundant graphic violence, some strong sexuality and nudity.)