New Line // 1996 // 92 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // September 3rd, 2004
Isn't it ironic how just one dead body can make life so complicated?
In the realm of dark comedy, ya either got it or ya don't. The Usual Suspects got it. Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry definitely got it. Head Above Water, however, don't got it. Ya get it?
Meet Nathalie (Cameron Diaz, Feeling Minnesota), a recovering drug-and-drink party girl saved from her addictions (and the cellblock) by her more senior husband, George (Harvey Keitel, Saturn 3), the respectable judge who spared her a deserved incarceration. That's all behind them now as the happy couple venture off to Nathalie's seaside vacation cottage to indulge in a romantic second honeymoon. Chiseled Lance (Craig Scheffer, Nightbreed), the cottage caretaker and childhood admirer of Nathalie, greets them warmly yet not without a tinge of envy. George, of course, is a very jealous man and explains as much to Lance during their overnight fishing trip. Meanwhile, Nathalie is left alone to be confronted by her ex-lover, Kent (Billy Zane, Critters), who floats in unannounced on a stolen dinghy. Still struggling with her penchant for pill-popping, not to mention a lingering longing for the wild Kent, the two frolic the night away in reminiscent revelry. Problem is, only one of them awakens the next day, Nathalie shocked to find the nude body of Kent face down and cold as ice in her bed. As George and Lance return from their outing, Nathalie scurries to hide Kent's body from the jealous George, but to no avail as George discovers the ex-Casanova's corpse. The diabolical dance to dump the body has begun, but was Kent's death really an accident or does one of these three island inhabitants harbor a dark and deadly umbrage? It's a high tide of deceit and double-crossings as each tries to keep their head above water.
On paper, this sounds like an absolutely delicious and delightful decent into noir nuttiness. There's enough sinister scheming, playful plot twists, and seeping suspicion to fill a ship's hold but the film never manages to take a hold of us. In comedy, it's all about the timing and, unfortunately, Head Above Water has none. It's certainly not without all the right ingredients, including gorgeous Cameron Diaz, zany Billy Zane (who does his eyebrows, anyway?), hardened Harvey Keitel, and a pre-made plotline lifted directly from 1993's Norwegian-made Hodet over vannet (and I'm intentionally overlooking the cardboard Craig Scheffer, as his character is merely a prop here). First time director Jim Wilson seems to have the jitters here as he retards the pacing to a laborious lurch, forcing the actors to slog through action for the apparent purpose of telegraphing the next unexpected reveal (though you're apt to anticipate the majority of them). We can be forgiving of the rather slow start once we have Zane's naked trunk to drag about and despair over a la Weekend at Bernie's, but our expectations are never fulfilled. The body is dispatched much too quickly and we are left with a rather disinteresting game of whodunnit-and-why? Really, it's a shame because there was clearly so much more to work with here yet the end result raises suspicion that these fine actors must be trapped in this ineffective farce by contractual reasons only (and cause for this court to reference some of their previous less-than-stellar features).
On disc, this disappointment of a daffy drama indiscriminately floats along by way of an otherwise well-rendered anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors are rather nice yet appear a bit muted and washed out. Flesh tones remain consistent under the sunny exteriors and detail level is suitably crisp and consistent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track sounds fine, but like the content material of the picture itself, is never utilized to even a fraction of its capability. No extras to speak of here save for the theatrical trailer and a couple other New Line trailers. Surely someone at New Line anticipated there wouldn't be much interest in extra content for this extraordinarily unimpressive production.
"Lighten up," some may say. Sure, it's a light and simple comedy (with some rather dark elements clumsily mixed in) that's probably not to be scrutinized so closely. That's fine, and visually, the scenery is rather breathtaking (that includes the Maine shoreline and open waters, not just the stunning Ms. Diaz). There's also some very inventive camera jockeying on hand thanks to clever cinematographer Richard Bowen. The score by Christopher Young contains the sort of quirky, quippy cues you'd expect of a comedy/thriller yet always seems to be ahead of the action, impatiently awaiting the plot to catch up. And largely, it is the pacing that keeps this film from ever breaking the surface of our interest, mired instead in an eddy of lethargic storytelling that never incites any actual laughs and incites us to wonder what else we could be doing instead.
If you find yourself with a lazy, maybe rainy afternoon with nothing else to do, Head Above Water may help you navigate away from the onset of sheer boredom. Enjoy the scenery on hand and think hard about the other pictures these fine actors have done, then pop any one of those in the DVD player for a much better use of your time. Head Above Water simply sunk, and I didn't much care.
Surely a crime has been committed here but this court lost complete interest in the testimony shortly after the swearing in.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers