Reviews

Invitation to a Suicide (2004)

The putative consequences are very real, yet the various reactions of everyone involved in Invitation to a Suicide undermine the narrative's integrity.


Invitation to a Suicide

Director: Loren Marsh
Cast: Pablo Schreiber, David Margulies, Katharine Moennig, Joseph Urla, Matthew Rauch
Distributor: Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Lightyear Entertainment
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2006-10-24
UK DVD Release Date: 2006-10-24
Website

Stop me if you've heard this story before: guy wants money, guy steals from mobster, guy gets caught, guy is informed that his father is dead unless money gets repaid by the end of the week. Naturally, guy decides to hang himself and sell tickets to pay the debt and save his father. Oh, that last part doesn't sound so familiar? Of course it doesn't, and it's exactly this morbidly fascinating -- and quite original -- solution to the clichéd dilemma that provides Invitation to a Suicide its intriguing potential. Perhaps unfairly, perhaps inevitably, a premise this potent elevates expectations that, alas, the film is not able to deliver. It's a shame, as this movie has every opportunity to find new ways around old corners and offer an alternate spin on the dark comedy, but, maddeningly, a series of facile shortcuts and self-conscious stylizing call to mind other, far better efforts.

Kaz Malek (Pablo Schreiber) is the dissatisfied son of a humble father who operates a modest bakery in the Polish section of a busy Brooklyn neighborhood. Not particularly anxious to follow in his father's footsteps, Kaz daydreams about Eva (Katharine Moennig), the beautiful girl he's loved since childhood, whom he wants to accompany him to happily-ever-after in California. Neither his father nor his would-be girlfriend seem particularly impressed with Kaz, the goofy, if good-natured, underachiever who might not have any idea what he wants to do, but is beginning to understand that doing nothing is not an option.

What is an uninspired and unimaginative guy to do? Rob the Russian mobster upstairs, obviously. Fame, fortune, and a road trip to California are one picked lock away. Predictably, the break-in goes up in smoke (literally), and Kaz ends up burning a wad of cash before he and his accomplice flee the scene. The mobster Ferfichkin (Joseph Urla) tracks them down and in short order Kaz has one dead friend and a dire predicament: come up with $10,000 or watch his father get murdered. So what does our hapless hero do to come up with the money no one in his working class neighborhood is able -- or willing -- to lend him?

The stakes are vivid enough: this is a matter of life and death, and the moment when Kaz decides to sell tickets to his own suicide should propel the movie into a different, if recondite direction. And yet, everything that follows seems familiar and predictable, from the lazily drawn characters to the outrageous, yet obvious, situations that arise. For instance, Kaz's friend Krysztof, who agrees to host the event at his funeral parlor, is eager to participate and convinced this will generate business. It's not so much that this isn't funny so much as it doesn't make any sense. And yet this is a minor issue that only underscores the more troublesome fact that Kaz is an increasingly difficult character to like or feel much compassion for. After his accomplice gets whacked, Kaz doesn't give him a second thought, and that false note encapsulates most of what never feels quite right about this film: the putative consequences are very real, yet the various reactions of everyone involved undermine the narrative's integrity.

No one in the neighborhood, including his own father, seems particularly troubled about his imminent death, and Kaz himself spends more time worrying about Eva's attention than the fact that he won't be around much longer to enjoy it. This handicaps the awkward momentum the movie seems to strive for: since none of the characters seem to be taking this seriously, the viewer has little reason to get invested, especially since there is never much doubt that it's all going to somehow work out in the end. If all the ostensible nonchalance is supposed to provide a perverse commentary on voyeurism and violence, the writing is not clever enough to pull it off, making it a semi-dark comedy that is neither dark nor funny enough. Or, put a different way, the funny parts seem too forced and the occasional, but crucial, moments of import feel strained.

In the end, the wisest move Loren Marsh makes is having secured the involvement of the ever reliable John Zorn, who composed the remarkable soundtrack. The music accompanies the action like a quirky chorus, providing an alternately buoyant and somber counterpoint for the increasingly predictable proceedings. One wishes more was made of the Brooklyn locale, but the Polish experience and surroundings never come to life or function as a vibrant backdrop the way James Gray utilized Brighton Beach in the overlooked but brilliant Little Odessa . Instead, the clunky camerawork and too-cutesy caricatures call to mind the punk affectations of Clerks , that inordinately praised but obviously influential indie caper.

The marketing materials claim that Invitation to a Suicide is in the absurdist tradition of comedies like Harold and Maude , but this type of flattering comparison only serves to amplify the many ways it falls far short of the masterpiece it unwisely attempts to invoke. In order to rank in the pantheon of indelible black comedies, a filmmaker needs to produce an engaging story with memorably eccentric characters, while creating new ways of working through familiar scenarios. Invitation to a Suicide is simply full of too many obvious faces and easy answers: in a big budget movie they'd be clichés; in this film they are merely disappointments. Nevertheless, it seems fair to hope and even expect that if Loren Marsh could conjure up an idea with this much potential, he has a few more surprises up his sleeve.

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