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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)


Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.


Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.


Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence. 


Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.


Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.


Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.


Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.




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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

SLEUTH (dir. Kenneth Branagh)


The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting.


No, the real featured performer here is a typically unsung hero known as Kenneth Branagh’s camera. It zips and zings, floating around large spaces and creeping around corners. It stays stoic and stationary when needed, and flips itself over like a puppy wanting attention when the narrative needs a creative spark. Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless. While it’s hard to imagine a battle of wits between war horse Caine and stud muffin Law to be anything other than kinetic, this exceedingly uninspired update of the 1972 original provides the perfect argument for leaving old cinema well enough alone. While the previous incarnation was far from perfect, this adaptation makes it look like a classic from the Old Vic.


When our sticky narrative begins, we meet Andrew Wyke, a successful crime author. Having learned that his wife is cuckolding him with a two bit actor/ hairdresser named Milo Tindle, he invites the bloke over for a sit down. Our young stud is glad to have the confrontation. He wants the Missus all to himself. But Wyke won’t give up without a fight, and he stages an elaborate trick in which he threatens the young man. The fatal results spell doom for this rich writer’s freedom—or do they? Perhaps this too is part of another elaborate ruse meant to scare Wyke into admitting the adultery and losing his wife forever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that these two men don’t like each other. The victor will most likely be the individual that has the gumption to go all the way—even as far as prison.


There are three basic things wrong with this remake (or as Branagh has noted, ‘reimagining’). The first is the decision to dump most of Anthony Schaffer’s original plotting. Sure, the set-up is the same, the cheated on husband, the dashing if slightly dumb lover, the surreal sense of one-upmanship between the two, the elaborate plot twists and interconnect charade. But where Pinter and Branagh break from tradition is as profound as it is perplexing. First off, most of Wyke’s infidelity is out. There is a hint, but we really sense he adores his trophy spouse. Second, there’s a last act turn toward talky desperation. It’s as if, after delivering two tripwire segments, everyone decided on something hackneyed and senseless for a finale. It really reeks of a massive screenplay stumble and practically destroys all that came before. 


Next is the Act II twist. Of course, in order to discuss it, we need to include a SPOILER ALERT. When Jude Law shows up in disguise as the gruff and smelly cop, he’s about as convincing as a high schooler embodying Willy Loman. There is just too much of the charismatic actor under all the greasepaint and fake features for us to buy the flim flam. And the back and forth between Wyke and this bogus bobby seems to ‘drag’ on forever. Long before our characters uncover the gag, we are bored waiting for said shoe to drop. The final facet that fails to connect is the homosexual angle. Again, another SPOILER is mandatory. In this version of the play, Wyke invites Tindle to be his “traveling companion” around the world, describing all the non-erotic male bonding they can experience while living together and sharing a bed. Apart from sounding like a Hays Code version of same sex innuendo, the veiled references aimed at maximizing intrigue end up resulting in unsettled aggravation. 


It clearly can’t be a matter of cinematic courage. We’ve grown up a lot in the last 50 years, and Caine even engaged in an eyebrow raising liplock with a male costar before, in the like minded motion picture puzzle box Death Trap. But just like everything else in Sleuth, even the most scandalous material is measured and antiseptic. In fact, most of the movie is as devoid of color and character as Wyke’s warship gray homestead. Branagh braves a lot of possible criticism for tampering with what ended up being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last film. The director, noted for such Tinsel Town treasures as All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, and Suddenly, Last Summer, would have never sold his story out this way. Instead, he would have challenged convention and deconstructed the essence of Schaeffer’s opus. Branagh, instead, simply guts the beast and sets it up in a new, high tech trench for all to see.


And the view isn’t very viable at all. While some of the scenes crackle with the kind of thespian fireworks we expect from such bright British lights, Sleuth is claustrophobic and cold, more a mausoleum than an actual movie—and it’s equally strewn with the corpses of the past and their unfriendly ghosts. Perhaps if Law had been replaced with someone sturdier, say Daniel Day Lewis or Ewan McGregor. Maybe if Pinter had polished the knotty narrative to the point of a high, histrionic strewn gloss. It could be that Branagh has made the very opposite of a thriller—a movie that doesn’t fray the nerves as much as recognize their biological importance and then politely moves on. There is great tension here, but also great tediousness. During the days when Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap was the longest running show in theater history, this kind of heavy handed antagonist byplay found favor with an audience. But in a Saw born environment, to be obvious is to be obsolete.


Still, that camera carries on. It gets in close to see Law’s fake teeth and Caine’s conniving eyes. It follows action from various surveillance set-ups, giving the movements a video game like quality. It reveals secrets and hinders clues. But most of all, it announces itself as easily the best element of what is otherwise a magnificent misfire. As mysteries go, it’s mindless and quite inconsequential. As a lesson in applying lenses, Sleuth manages a bit of relevancy—if only a bit. 



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Monday, Nov 5, 2007


If you want to exude the essence of India, you can’t do much better than the tantric hum of this movie’s title. Om Shanti Om marks the second collaboration between choreographer-turned-director, Farah Khan, and superstar, Shahrukh Khan, and everything about the film brilliantly evokes the cultural transformation of India in the last 20 years, a heady mix of ancient spirituality and pop sensibility.  Om Shanti Om lacks the buoyancy and vitality of their first picture, the masala musical, Main Hoon Na, but it’s irresistibly watchable. 


Om Shanti Om plays upon the ancient principle that lies at the core of Indian dreams: reincarnation, the belief in new beginnings and opportunities.  In 1977, Om Prakash (Shahrukh Khan) is an eager, movie-obsessed young man who with his friend (relative newcomer, Shreyas Talpade) loiters around Bombay and its film studios, daydreaming, catching any insight into the business of which he longs to be a part, and hoping to get a glimpse of his favorite starlet, Shantipriya (model Deepika Padukone, in her first film role).  Like Farhan Akther’s superb Shahrukh vehicle, Don, that came out a year ago, Om Shanti Om revels in nostalgia for the swinging late ‘70s, presumably the magical movie years of Shahrukh Khan’s own boyhood.  You get a sense of the energetic, slapdash masala films starring Jeetendra and Mithun Chakravarty (who appropriately, have cameos in this movie).  The song “Doom Taana” is an ode to the song sequences of the ‘70s era musicals, as it goes from scenes of vivid, stately Bharat Natyam dancers to a jaunty dance on a tennis court - ancient India at worship and modern India at play.


There is, of course, a plot, though it’s not terribly important here.  The melodramatic string of events involves the starstruck fan and the starlet falling in love, being thwarted by her menacing Svengali manager (played by Arjun Rampal, made to look absurd in his villainy, like a black leather clad Snidely Whiplash), a murder, a reincarnation, retribution, and reunification.  Part Kahoo Na Pyaar Ke and part Somewhere in Time, Om Shanti Om wants us to share its epic romantic idealism, about a love so powerful that it spanned decades and transcended the laws of time itself.  Shahrukh makes a concerted effort here, but Deepika Padukone is so blank and unemotive, that it’s hard to feel for her, or to care what happens to the lovers.  In the scenes where the love story drips with solemnity and becomes, suddenly, and awkwardly, serious, the entire film becomes flimsy and unconvincing.  We get a sense of the hair-pulling that must have happened backstage, with Farah Khan trying forcibly to wrench a plausible performance out of this beautiful, mechanical doll. 


There is little on-location shooting, and the whole film is composed on a series of lush, color-saturated soundstage sets, not unlike the quickly staged (but entertaining) Arthur Freed musicals of the ‘50s - Brigadoon, The Band Wagon, and It’s Always Fair Weather. The soundstages here, as lavish as they are, add a tinge of claustrophobia, and as beautiful as all the scenes looks, they seem slightly artificial and confined. Director Farah Khan knows her cinematic language.  The mise-en-scene is soaked in the romanticism of the films of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, Bollywood and Hollywood, particularly the movies about making movies.  Guru Dutt’s bittersweet love-letter to the Indian film industry, Kaagaz Ka Phool, the decaying film studio looming large, derelict, full of broken dreams and thwarted potential.



Om Shanti Om, however, is in danger of being undone by its own gaudiness.  The soft-porn techno number, “Dard-E-Disco,” with the toned, chiseled Shahrukh striding the stage bare-chested in low-rise jeans and a construction helmet, made me cringe. Shahrukh is a handsome man, but the gratuitous exhibitionism is not his thing.  And the extravagant masked ball sequence looked like it was lifted directly from Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera


One song has received a lot of hype in the media, and that’s the “Om Shanti Om” title number, which affords several simultaneous cameo appearances by industry heavyweights. In an attempt to outdo the excitement of all cameos before and after, the song crams 31 major stars in the same room for dance number, packing them in like kids in a cafeteria fire drill.  But what a show!  Some of these actors haven’t been seen together in the same frame in over ten years, some never before at all. In its own way, it’s historic, and the audience is suitably dazzled.



Throughout the movie, I saw echoes of Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Scenes are full of the elusive, hypnotic nature of celebrity, wanting to be a close and as intimate with a star as possible - the obsession that fuels the existence of TMZ and E! Om Shanti Om doesn’t take itself too seriously with this fixation, but rather trivializes it through sentimental nostalgia for a more glamorous bygone movie era.  The movie delights in the illusory pleasures of the past without providing a lot of emotional substance.  But it’s entertaining in the way that a good musical comedy, whether it’s Singing in the Rain, or Hairspray, is entertaining.  Full of color, energy, and unpretentious confidence.



 


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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)


Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced—both personal and social—were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.


After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit—a kid who thinks he’s an alien—to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.


There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.


Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks—taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events—aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.


Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable—a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry.  By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms. 


Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all—something the movie itself makes us well aware of.



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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (dir. Goran Dukic)


Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90-minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands.


After carefully cleaning his room and organizing his affairs, Zia takes a razor to his wrists. His girlfriend has left him, and his life seems extra pointless. Unfortunately, the supposed finality of his desperation leads to an afterlife way station where other suicides spend eternity toiling away at meaningless jobs. Lucky enough to befriend an entire Russian family, Zia spends his days making pizza and wondering what went wrong. When he learns that his gal pal offed herself as well, he decides to go on a journey to find her. Corralling his Ruskie rock star friend Eugene into driving him, they head off onto a nameless road. Along the way they pick up Mikal, a recent arrival who claims she’s been unfairly brought to this dimension. She’s looking for the PICs—the People in Charge—to right the wrong. Eventually, they wind up at a magical commune run by Kneller…and smack dab into the middle of a battle with a false Messiah who wants dominion over the perplexed populace. 


Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience. Part sci-fi, part emo shoe gazing, it’s the perfect companion piece for the cynical, post-millennial Gen-“?” crowd. Anyone whose lived more than, say, 25 years on and in the real world known as planet Earth will have a hard time relating to the aimless romanticism presented, and there are aspects of writer/director Dukic’s vision that run head long into aggravating artistic dead-ends, but when the filmmaker is motoring, the journey is a joy to behold.  By setting up his own unique universe, inventing rules that help supplement and support the points he’s making, he finds a way to take troubling subject matter and make it open and inviting.. This doesn’t mean everyone will get it, but if you pay close enough attention, you can see the message hiding among the deadpan performances and grim gray landscapes.


While the notion that suicide leads to a post-existence world of mindless bureaucratic doldrums has been done before (Beetlejuice more or less covered that topic), Dukic’s does offer up something that smacks of originality. This button down, going nowhere fast ante-existence definitely reeks of the way we view our current career choices, but by adding the logistically limiting factor of self-destruction, we get a much narrower view of said rat race. As part of his particular philosophy, Dukic’s doesn’t have many problems with conformity. All throughout Wristcutters, we see the status quo supported and celebrated—that is, until it becomes a bit like brainwashing. Indeed, the amazingly mixed message offered could be best described as “learn how to be yourself, so that you can better assimilate into a world overwrought with such individualized perceptions.” Neat.


This is best personified by Eugene. While he definitely diddles to his own drummer, the former frontman for a failed Euro-Czech fusion band believes in tradition. That’s why his whole family wound up in Wristcutters’ weird realm. They just couldn’t imagine a life without each other. Zia, on the other hand, struggles against such ideals. For him, parents are a pitfall, someone you have to answer for and explain your purpose to. When he meets Mikal, he constantly chides her desire to change her lot in (after)life. Yet he’s after his ex-girlfriend, hoping to rekindle in this plane the connections he created in the real world. There are some sobering, insightful conversations about these topics sprinkled across Wristcutters’ road movie moxie. It helps get us over some of the film’s more bonkers, blank verse variables.


Unlike other films of this type, where specific rules and regulations are used as a foundation for their satire/social commentary, Dukic appears to be making much of this up as he goes along. While it is based on a short story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters tends to wander off into its own insular parallels. When we finally meet up with Kneller and his magic commune, we wonder why the movie took us here. While on the move, the narrative was taking us along for the ride. But the minute we see the cult buster laying prone in the middle of the road (expertly played by musician turned madman, Tom Waits) he distracts us from the other character’s purpose. And then the whole third act mirrors the same cinematic switcheroo. We want to see what happens to Zia, Eugene, and Mikal. The added influence of Kneller’s crusade, a failed Jim Jones, and his psycho sect seem widely out of place—even if the ending tries to divine a purpose to it all.


Thankfully, whenever we feel flummoxed, the actors step up and deliver some creative comfort. Though he still resembles his Almost Famous teenage persona, Patrick Fugit fills out the angst driven needs of Zia quite nicely. He’s never too morose, and tends to equalize his ennui with a cutting sense of humor. Shannyn Sossamon, on the other hand, has an eerie, otherworldly quality that makes her Mikal seem that much more out of place. While she tends to play her scenes with a kind of ballsy, no bullshit attitude, we can sense there is something really troubling inside her. For the role of the heavily accented Eugene, Tallahassee native Shea Whigham gets good and lost. From the Eastern Bloc hairdo to the tongue tied way of speaking, he never once delivers a false note. And then there’s Waits. Using his magnificent rasp for all its inherent wisdom and indulgence, he turns a nothing part into something quite solid.


As for Dukic, he deserves some legitimate praise along with the clear criticisms. Maintaining such a surreal cinematic place for an entire motion picture takes talent, and even when he slips and lets the surface show, he manages to clear things up quite nicely. Like dozens of stories that came before, this movie does speak to a demo driven underground and dismissed for their lack of commitment and agenda. So is there any argument as to why an aimless tale of a directionless dude traveling along an inexact landscape wouldn’t resonate with post-university pawns? Wristcutters is practically reading their mind. Indeed, if you are under 30 and free from the adult reality tenets that tie one down, this film will feel like a revelation. Others already jaded might not find the same connection. Wristcutters: A Love Story is definitely bold and audacious—and avoids killing itself in the process.



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