Wednesday, August 13, 2008

'07 Leftovers-Wristcutters: A Love Story

Director: Goran Dukic
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Tom Waits, Shea Whigham, Leslie Bibb, Will Arnett

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

Everyone has their dream pairing of actors they’d like to see star in a movie together. For some it may have been De Niro and Pacino finally sharing the screen (albeit for one scene) in Heat. Maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Or maybe it was a dream pairing that looked great on paper but didn’t exactly pan out the way you’d hoped, kind of like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar. My choice is very different from others and would probably have most movie fans scratching their heads. It’s Patrick Fugit and Shannyn Sossomon

It might seem weird to you but to me it makes perfect sense because both gave “should have been nominated” performances in two favorite of my favorite films this decade (Almost Famous and The Rules of Attraction). I do realize there are technically “better” actors out there who have yet to appear together in a film but none of them gave performances I felt reached into my soul and spoke to me personally like those two did. In other words, there are no two actors I like or want to see succeed more than them. It’s a safe bet that had different actors been cast in those roles the films would not only not occupy the exclusive place for me they do, but I wouldn’t be reviewing films at all right now. And that’s why I was terrified to see Wristcutters: A Love Story when it was released last year. Going in I had two fears:

1. My expectations would be so high that I’d just end up being disappointed with whatever shows up on screen. You know the feeling: When how it plays in your head is so good you just don’t want to mess with it.

2. My love for these two actors would completely cloud my objectivity.

The first scenario would be awful, but thinking it over the second might not be too bad. After all, who can be objective about something as personal as film? My recent blog on the fantasy casting of The Dark Night sequel in which I picked Sossoman out of some really tough competition to play Catwoman reminded me and finally motivated me to check this movie out. And after watching it I felt even more secure in my choice of her for the role, if that’s possible.
Really, all I cared about going into this were whether the two gave great performances and were as awesome on screen together as I’d imagined they’d be, even if the movie ended up sucking. They were, which was so thrilling for me, but the film also delivered in a big way. At times it does drown itself a little too much in quirky indie sensibility but it’s a fascinating, original work that was probably just an edit or two away from absolute greatness. It covers a topic that’s so important but approaches it in a way we’ve never seen before and with very little sentimentality. I was moved in a way I didn’t expect, especially in the final scene, which is a clinic on how to end a movie effectively.

I always found it disturbing that when someone commits suicide the reaction (whether they knew the person or not) always seems to be: “They were SELFISH.” I always thought that was a really disgusting thing to say. Someone who would go so far as to take their own life must have been feeling emotional pain we couldn’t even begin to understand and they’re calling them names and making moral judgments on what they did. Worse yet, the statement focuses on the living and the burden they bare rather than the memory of the actual victim. I kind of see the twisted logic behind the remark but a part of me thinks it’s just a way of absolving themselves of responsibility. The comment reveals more about their selfishness than that of the person who probably deserves better than to be remembered for a single act out of a life. Wristcutters: A Love Story is the first film dealing with this topic to understand that and know that those who commit suicide deserve compassion not judgment.

For those who are alive “life goes on” but so what? It doesn’t for people who are dead. And let’s be honest, if we gave anyone free rein to move on without us they won’t waste any time. They’ll re-marry. Make new friends. It’s only human nature. I know a woman who suffered an unimaginable tragedy a few years ago and still hasn’t been able to move on with her life. Of course this isn’t healthy and is self destructive, but a part of me respects that she refuses to let go, as awful as that sounds. And I’d imagine it isn’t easy to with people in your face telling you they “understand” what you’re going through. We all wonder if there’s such a thing as the “right way” to react to someone’s death and how others would react to ours.

These questions and many more seem to be on the mind of Zia (Fugit) when he cleans his room, then goes into the bathroom to slit his wrists in the opening scene of Wristcutters He just broke up with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) and as far as he’s concerned his life is over so may as well just finish the job. He suspects that after a brief period of grieving she’ll just move on to someone else and forget about him and we suspect he’s probably right. The afterlife he finds himself in is so bad because it’s exactly like the world we live in now, just a little worse because it’s more boring. He gets a job at Kamikazee pizza and meets others stuck in this suicide purgatory like Russian rocker Eugene (Shea Whigham) who intentionally electrocuted himself on stage.

When Zia gets wind that Desiree also killed herself he and Eugene embark on a road trip to find her when they pick up a beautiful hitchhiker Mikal (Sossamon) who’s looking to talk to the “People In Charge” about getting out. She insists she didn’t commit suicide and is in this world by mistake. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the flashbacks of how the people Zia meets along his journey killed themselves. It nicely conveys the idea that everyone has a different story and of course we do eventually find out what Mikal (a name that would be funnier if it were actually spelled “McCall”) means when she says she doesn’t deserve to be there. Flashbacks are tricky but every one does count for something here and makes us feel closer to the situation.

Most depictions of the afterlife on film are hyper-realized like the worlds of Defending Your Life or What Dreams May Come. This takes a completely different and original approach by making the after life drab, boring and washed out looking. Everyone even kind of looks dead and pale, arriving in a state likely similar to when they entered the morgue.

There are intentional echoes of The Wizard of Oz with Zia and Mikal’s quest to complete themselves and if that comparison should be made then the “Wizard” is a bizarre cult leader named Kneller (the film is based on Etgar Keret’s 1998 short story, “Kneller’s Happy Campers”) played by legendary singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who I bet probably did really want to kill himself after hearing Scarlett Johansson’s recent covers of his songs. It’s one of those weird supporting roles that if Waits turned down it probably would have went to either Bob Dylan or Keith Richards. Take your pick. Waits is Waits and he gives an appropriately loony performance. There’s also a cameo appearance by Will Arnett as an even weirder cult leader feuding with him and I wouldn’t even know whether to classify his work in this as comedic or dramatic. Whatever you call it, fans of his won’t be disappointed that’s for sure.

The screenplay is smart enough to know that sometimes what you wished to find all along isn’t exactly what you thought it was cracked up to be. That’s very true for both Zia and Mikal’s quests. The weak acting link in the film is Bibb who in her flashback scenes doesn’t convey why Zia would want to travel the ends of this world to be with her. Although, that may be the point. Whenever a film features the sub-title “A Love Story” certain expectations are bound to accompany it, most of which are negative. This is very much is a love story but not the sappy, sentimental kind but more of a real one that begins as a reluctant friendship between two people who have nowhere else to turn. I knew there’d be little chance Fugit and Sossamon would do anything less than superb work and I was right but I had my doubts just how much chemistry they’d have together. That was the part that really surprised me.

I know I’ve ranted and raved enough already how much I love Sossamon but I’ll do it some more because she just has such a natural, effortless presence onscreen and never forces it. I think I could watch her read the phone book for 2 hours. She’s met her match in Fugit, who plays this character not unlike William Miller in Almost Famous. Both William and Zia are innocents that come of age in strange worlds they know nothing about and end up understanding themselves better because of it.
This is the first film I’ve seen Fugit in since Almost Famous 8 years ago and he may look older but all that talent didn’t go anywhere. I’m glad he’s been showing up in more films lately and was even heavily rumored at one point earlier in the year to be replacing Tobey Maguire in the next Spider-Man film. I would much rather see him continue to do more character driven work like this though. Not to be outdone, Shea Whigham provides invaluable comic relief as the Russian rocker. His character manages to feel like more than just a third wheel.

About a minute before the closing credits I had a feeling how the film would end but doubted filmmaker Goran Dukic would have the guts to go through with it. He did. Many will probably view it as a manipulative or a cop-out but I found it brave. He wasn’t afraid to give the story the closure and finish it needed at whatever cost. When a film is already dealing with the less than cheery topic of suicide why would you want see characters who you’ve grow to like and care about suffer just uphold the imaginary “rules” of the story? I can probably name only about 20 movies I’ve ever seen that ended at the EXACT moment they should. Most directors don’t know when to get out and just linger pointlessly for minutes longer than is necessary in the final moments. Here you can almost hear the book closing on the story and it’s a beautiful moment. There was also a neat twist I didn’t see coming.

I’ve already listed my best films of 2007 but had I seen this earlier it probably would have just missed the top 10, which makes me wonder what else of great value I could have missed from last year. I like it when movies leave you talking about important issues for hours and this one definitely does that. Wristcutters may not be perfect, but it’s close enough for me. And now I can say two of my favorite actors finally have a film that binds them.

1 comment:

JD said...

Well it does sound pretty perfect from here. Still have it on the queue.
Excellent review.
I liked what you had to say about suicide as well.