Image Entertainment // 2007 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // November 12th, 2008
He's Finally Had Enough.
One of those inexplicable independent films that brings together a great cast and fine cinematography, The Good Life never manages to come together the way it should. While it has moments of great emotional power, it ultimately bites off far more than it can ever hope to chew.
Jason Prayer (Mark Webber, Good Dick) hasn't had an easy go of things. His abusive father has died recently, and he tries to support his mother by working at a gas station as well as helping out Gus (Harry Dean Stanton, Alien) at a classic film house. As he tries to cope with life's pain, he gets help from Frances (Zooey Deschanel, The Happening), a quirky nut who takes a sudden liking to our young hero. Other strange characters weave in and out of Jason's life, including a mysterious and overly friendly guy (Bill Paxton, Aliens) and a psychotic ex-highschool-football player (Chris Klein, Just Friends).
Sometimes, a film just doesn't deserve its cast. In many ways, The Good Life is a narrative mess, pulling together a collection of storytelling missteps and awkward moments. It makes the near-fatal flaw of starting with the end of the movie, which inadvertently spoils some of the most important twists of the film. If you are going to use the "mystery box" trope, make sure that the contents of said box don't appear in the opening scene.
As well, scenes begin and end at inexplicable moments, leaving us with far too much to wonder or dropping us into a situation that we don't see started. Some of the sequences need to be edited much tighter, while some of the best moments in the film simply stop, just as we get truly intrigued.
But the cast here is absolutely phenomenal. Mark Webber, who definitely shouldn't have received sixth billing, carries the film with grace and sensitivity. He is a surprisingly passive hero, yet we learn much about him as the film continues. There are several remarkable supporting performances as well. Zooey Deschanel has shown a knack for choosing quirky roles, and this one is one of her best to date. The other standout performance comes from Harry Dean Stanton, whose aging and senile Gus is unique, not simply a run through the character we have seen so many times before. Many of the supporting characters are impressive as well, though few of them have enough screen time to make any difference in the film. Indeed, they simply come and go, almost as though the running time needed padding.
Unfortunately, even the best performances can't make up for the weaknesses in the scripts they inhabit. Considering the opening scene and the setup of the characters, we feel throughout that these are characters pushing towards an ultimate and unavoidable confrontation, and much of the suspense comes from this setup. But as the end gets closer, we start to discover that all of that preparation is for nothing. The big shock reveal about Frances is downright mundane, almost surprising in how insignificant it is. The end is also a big-time cheat, though it also isn't as much of a surprise as it should be. Again, showing the end at the beginning is a dangerous thing to do. It can bring so much significance to the experience of watching the film, but it can easily backfire. This is one of those examples, where the ending we are promised is nothing like the ending we receive.
As I've said with so many other small indie films, I am genuinely looking forward to Director Stephen Berra's future projects. He has a keen eye for character and development, and the dialogue between characters is often effective. With a better-structured script and a bit more practice, I expect we will see an astonishingly good film from him soon.
In technical terms, The Good Life is also fairly impressive. It is delivered as an attractive 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, which has solid black levels and good detail levels. The color transfer is also solid, with bold reds standing out from the generally neutral color palette. It's obvious that this wasn't a mainstream film, but it still looks great. The sound is also excellent, with clear dialogue and well-mixed music throughout. Unfortunately, the disc has no special features, and I would have been interested to see some interviews or a commentary track on this one.
In the end, I am going to give The Good Life a limited recommendation. Adventurous viewers will find enough to like in the characters of this film to forgive its many flaws, though most others should probably give it a pass. It has far too much promise to ignore this many horrible missteps.
I am going to sentence The Good Life to two years, hopefully long enough to rehabilitate those rough edges.
Review content copyright © 2008 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R