Ethics & Public Policy Center

Gossip

Published in EPPC Online on April 1, 2000



Did you know that gossip can be vicious and destructive—especially when false rumors are deliberately planted by idle and amoral youths just to see what happens? No? Then Gossip, directed by Davis Guggenheim and written by Gregory Poirier, is definitely the movie for you. Even if you did know these things but have a glossy-magazine reader’s interest in the “lifestyle” of rich, young, good-looking college students with nothing very much to do, you will find a good deal to ogle at in this movie. If, on the other hand, you tend to be depressed by what you see of that “lifestyle,” or if you continue to cherish some residual respect for the learning and scholarship with which universities used to be associated, then you had better stay away from it.

The story concerns three students in the “communications” class of Professor Goodwin (Eric Bogosian) at an unnamed university in an unnamed urban center that looks a lot like New York City. Derrick (James Marsden) is a spoiled rich kid who owns a large loft apartment in a fashionably bohemian neighborhood and who lets his large spare bedrooms to his less well-heeled room-mates, “Jones” (Lena Headey), whose parents intended her to be called Cathy, and Travis (Norman Reedus). The three of them seem to spend all their time drinking from their well-stocked cocktail cabinet at home or else going to clubs to drink. The only interest any of them takes in academic matters is aroused when the Prof, in good professorial fashion, appears momentarily if enigmatically skeptical about Derrick’s arrogant assertion that gossip and news, like gossip and history or gossip and holy writ, are really indistinguishable. Besides, “I like gossip. It’s fun.”

The three of them, on one of their perpetual drunken binges, decide to plant a rumor as a sort of class project. As Professor Goodwin might at some stage be expecting something that could pass for work from them, they think it a clever notion to tell a made-up story and chart its progress through their little community. The story is that an acquaintance, Beau (Joshua Jackson), date-raped the beautiful but snobby Naomi (Kate Hudson) when she was drunk and passed out at one of the endless succession of parties they all seem to go to. Derrick, hiding in the bathroom with his own passed-out paramour, had seen enough of what really happened to know it was close enough to the truth to be believed. And it is believed, even by Naomi. And soon it is all over campus. And soon after that, Beau is arrested and charged with rape.

Of course, the conscience-stricken Jones tries to take it back, to reveal that it was all just the three friends’ term-paper for Professor Goodwin. But Derrick proves strangely reluctant to come clean, and even tells an opposite story to the police. Pausing only to sleep with Derrick herself, Jones does a little research not on the syllabus and finds that Derrick and Naomi went to the same posh private school, had in fact been boyfriend and girlfriend, and that Derrick had been accused by Naomi of date-rape! Derrick, whose contempt for the truth has been obvious from the beginning, has deceived her! The whole idea had been conceived from the start as his revenge on Naomi for blackening his name with the rape accusation—the direr consequences of which only his parents’ money had averted.

With a remarkably clever plot of her own, Jones mobilizes the weak Travis and the distant Professor Goodwin and several others in an attempt to defeat Derrick’s attempt to wreck the lives of Naomi and Beau, but the original point is by this time rather spoiled. For it is not “gossip” that causes the mayhem and nearly ruins several young lives, but a deliberately-laid campaign of malice. So does that mean that just ordinary gossip is still OK—even “fun”? Or that it is still indistinguishable from news as Derrick said? If not, what is the difference between the two? The movie has no interest in answering any of the questions of this sort that it raises. The community of wastrels will presumably expel the really nasty wastrel, Derrick, from its midst and then return to its wastrel “lifestyle.” I hope that makes you feel a lot better.

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