Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Dir. Goran Dukic

Viewed: On the Couch

Sean heads eastish:

As I've been keeping busy lately trying to take in all the Emir Kusturica that I can find -- it's kismet that this little off-beat mystical romance by a Croatian director would find it's way in between all the Yugoslavian madness of Kusturica and fit right in. But "we're all immigrants here" as our main character Zia puts it. Played by Patrick Fugit, growing up from the days of Almost Famous and looking a bit like a young Jeff Tweedy, Zia is on a road trip with his best friend Eugene to find his ex-girlfriend. Some of the obstacles he has to overcome are that he killed himself a while back and he now lives in a desolate world filled with people that "offed" themselves, he has no real idea where his recently offed ex-girlfriend might be, there's a black hole underneath the passenger seat of the car and they just picked up a hitchhiker who may be Zia's real true love after all.

The imagination and deadpan attitude that is put into the creation of this afterlife world more than make up for the lack of surprises in the plot points. Wristcutters is a perfect example of how to use your low budget and minimal resources to your advantage. The simple trick of making flashbacks to the real world pop with color and the Wristcutters world pale and drab is obvious but effective. While I would have liked more scenes in the urban environment where we meet Zia and Eugene I'm a sucker for a good road movie and I had to agree with Eugene when he tells Zia as he nods off in the passenger seat one more time, "You're missing some beautiful shit", as they pass by the torn sofas and tires and decrepit buildings that dot the desert landscape.

The whole idea of a world populated by people who have committed suicide is a fascinating one. And that the movie makes it a slightly shittier version of real life is perfect. The scenes early on establishing the after-lives of Zia and the people he knows are great -- an entire family reunited after each one ended up killing themselves one after another and falls right back into it's routine, the employees of Kamikaze Pizza... I would be happy with a movie that just focused on the day to day lives of the people but as the title states, this is a love story and a pretty routine one at that. But the interesting and likable characters, especially Eugen (a character inspired by Gogol Bordello's lead performer who contributes a couple of the band's songs to the movie), make spending time with a pleasure.

The movie could be faulted for not exploring the possibilities of this world further than it does but I liked what it did with the most basic questions. And that the most important question, What happens when someone kills themselves again (do they end up in an even shittier world)?, inspires cults and messiahs to pop up is an interesting thread to follow as the movie does in its final act. I can also understand the argument that the movie could inspire someone to take a romantic view of suicide. I think it's a dumb assessment to take but I could picture someone dumb enough to take it. The movie is pretty clear that it's a miserable world but sparsely populated and the fact no one can smile ("everyone's an asshole!" says one character) are things that I'm sure the inclined could look at as pluses. While the story of Wristcutters could be summed up as, A Man Finds True Love After Killing Himself, I think the ending of the movie re-enforces the point that the real-world is the only place where love can happen.

One of the draws this movie has is that it's one of those rare occasions where Tom Waits pops up for a role so some people may be wondering how he turns out. Well, he's no master thespian but he has a sly playfulness that is quite appealing. His role as Kneller, the head of one of the cults our travellers run into is larger and a whole lot more meaningful than you'd expect given his past movie roles being more of a quick hello. It's also worth noting RFC favorite Mark Boone Junior pops up in this -- a treat even if he is confined to a wheelchair and has but three or four lines.

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Paddy:

Agree completely on almost every point. I was really drawn into the initial world of the seedy bar, the lame pizza shop (I just got the joke in the name...I'm slow), and the crappy apartment. I like especially how the post-suicide world basically looks like life in your mid to late twenties, and setting the ennui of slackerdom in a fantasy world rather than, say, Seattle, allows director Goran Dukic to explore some of the frustrations of this time without it looking like a big-screen version of the wretched Quarterlife.

While Fugit is perfect for the role, it really is the side characters that make the movie so enjoyable, starting with Eugen and his crazy car. I may be easy, but I laughed every fucking time something went under that seat. Shea Whigham is really really good and I'm looking forward to seeing him develop into a great character actor. I'm also sure it was a lot of fun to envision this world and then realize that you can put all sorts of crazy folks like Mark Boone Junior, Jake Busey, Deadwood's John Hawkes and Waits in it. I thought Waits himself was surprisingly good too, actually acting instead of just trading on his natural charm.

The movie does have two severe limitations, however, that would keep me from recommending it. The first is simply that the plot ravels out of control to the point that by the time Will Arnett appears (in the role, basically, of Will Arnett) I was done with the story. It's not surprising that the screenplay came from a short story (Etgar Keret) because beyond the initial idea, the movie doesn't have much to move it along and it's up to all these great actors to drag it to the finish line.

But the real problem I have is in the love story part. You rightly point out that it is conventional, all the way from the dumped boyfriend to the tired cliche of the dumb blond girl vs. the cool brunette. Even the names are giveaways as you know right away that Zia is not going to fall back in love with someone named Desiree. But worse is that the movie cops out on the question of love. The entire movie we hear about how Zia has to track down the love of his life, but by the time we see her, she is a two-dimensional raving lunatic. What could have been a difficult choice between a past love and a current love is turned into a no-brainer. There is no understanding of why Zia cared so much about this girl that he would remember her name, let alone kill himself over her. It's just false.

I suppose you could explain Desiree's insanity as a metaphor, that Zia has grown emotionally to the point where he (and we) can't even remember why he loved her in the first place, but this seems an easy way out. I'm not surprised that a movie would present this kind of easy transition between loves, but it is disappointing in a movie with a set-up that would lead you to believe it might actually try to present real people as they actually experience emotion. It's not that I need to see those things in every movie, but if you aren't going to deal with them seriously, you might as well just go the crazy-ass Kusturica way and get rid of all conventions.

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Sean tucks 'er in:

I've found that as well as this movie there was a series of comics based on this short story of Etgar Keret's that are collected in a book called "Pizzeria Kamikaze". I can picture this as prime subject matter for a wandering, leisurely paced black and white comic book. I haven't seen it so I don't know if this is the path they take with the book but it's how it plays out in my head. It is how the best scenes of the movie play out. The description of this graphic novel from the publisher is, "Pizzeria Kamikaze is about a guy with a broken heart who committed suicide only to find himself at Pizza Kamikaze, a regular day job in a world where everyone died before. Now, it's about passing time." If only that was all it was about I think they could have pulled together a five star movie that would have been praised along the likes of Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise.

We've spoken about how important an ending is to a movie -- Wristcutters has such a great beginning that the sputtering of the ending (once Will Arnett appears) can't get me down. I recommend this movie as a perfect Saturday morning/afternoon delicacy. I think it plays well on a small screen, I'm not all that sad that I missed it in the theaters and I dare anyone who sees this to try and get that Gogol Bordello "Underground" song out of their head during the week afterwards.



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