Dead Simple is a 2000 production shot near Calgary and originally titled "Viva Las Nowhere." I suspect it never received a theatrical release (if it did, it must have been shorter than that of Heaven's Gate but without the publicity), and has now gone straight to DVD courtesy of Artisan. When a film's advertising tagline is "from the producers of 3000 Miles To Graceland," it tells you that there may be some difficulties with it. That certainly proves to be the case here.
Facts of the Case
Frank Jacobs, who operates an unsuccessful motel called "Middle of America" located at the geographical center of the U.S., spends his time writing country songs and hoping somehow to break into the music business. One night, returning from an amateur show performance at a local bar, Frank runs into Julie, a country music singer who sees Frank as an easy mark and decides to try and con him out of some money. Frank's unsympathetic wife, Helen, recognizes Julie for what she is, but following a confrontation, is killed by Julie. This becomes but the first of a series of killings that eventually place Frank at the mercy of Julie's husband, Roy Baker, and Helen's twin sister, Wanda. Roy and Wanda force Frank to sell the motel to them and following a fight, believe they have killed him. Frank, however, is not dead and he soon reappears on the scene hoping to retrieve his music and then get away without being discovered. But of course he is, and Roy and Wanda soon find their own plans now in jeopardy.
The Evidence (here known as The Rebuttal Witnesses 1)
There are reasons why films go directly to video. Muddled stories and poor acting are usually two pretty good ones, and that's what we've got here in Dead Simple. Our intrepid director, the renowned Jason Bloom, appears to have just let the actors have a free hand. James Caan, who must have been desperate for a part, does his idea of a Willy Nelson impression playing Roy Baker. Patricia Richardson, after spending most of the '90s in TV's Home Improvement, overacts shamelessly in a dual role as both Helen and Wanda. Daniel Stern gives us a collection of grimaces and wide-eyed looks as his interpretation of how to play the hapless Frank. Only ER's Sherry Stringfield in a supporting role comes out of this with any degree of integrity intact.
Just about everybody's dumb in this film. Got a body to bury? Why not bury it at the scene of the crime and cover it with 5cm of dirt? Force someone to sign over their motel to you and you won't reveal they killed someone? Surely, especially when the motel's worthless and of no use to you whatsoever. Need a $50,000 loan to start up a nightclub at your worthless motel? No problem, your friendly bank loan officer just happens to fancy himself a gospel singer, and for a chance to perform, the loan is yours. Etcetera, etcetera. The script is attributed to Richard Uhlig and Steven Seitz, both of whom, according to the IMDB, have Dead Simpleas their sole writing credit. On the evidence of this film, they're unlikely to add a second.
Perhaps realizing the shortcomings of the film itself, our friends at Artisan have attempted to dress up their DVD with plenty of trappings, unfortunately for your faithful reviewer. But let's turn to the transfer first. The image (1.85:1 anamorphic) is rather uneven in quality. Some sequences look very sharp and clean; others are grainy with attendant loss of shadow detail. The overall impression is of a transfer that is average or slightly above at best. Colour fidelity appears good, but the whole thing lacks vibrancy. Both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are included. The latter does provide a little more depth and resonance to the country music soundtrack, but either are quite adequate for clearly conveying the film's audio content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses 2
In sampling the supplements, I first turned to a short featurette of behind-the-scenes interviews. You know, one day I hope to hear an actor admit that he or she just took the part because they needed the money or they wanted to maintain visibility pending a more worthy role. But I haven't heard it yet. Here we're treated to James Caan and Patricia Richardson waxing eloquent over the merits of the script. Give me a break. Do these people think the audience is that dumb? At that point, I quickly turned to the audio commentary where director Jason Bloom, composer Andrew Gross, production designer Alexander Hammond, and editor Luis Colina proceeded to joke their way through the on-screen proceedings. At one early point, Bloom admitted that a particular scene had been edited into the film at an earlier point than had originally been planned, resulting in a conscious continuity error—something that even I noticed. Rather than reshoot the scene, Bloom just knowingly left it as is and seemed to feel that doing so was all just some big joke—another sign of great respect for his audience! My enthusiasm for this audio commentary began to decrease from that point and the succession of jokey comments and congratulation following soon turned me off. Dead Simple is Bloom's third theatrical turkey in a row after Bio-Dome (1996) and Overnight Delivery (1998). If the film gods are with us, he won't get a fourth opportunity.
Rounding out the disc are a photo gallery, the film's trailer, a trailer gallery for 4 other Artisan releases (Picking Up the Pieces, Bad Seed, Panic [which might actually be good] and Cecil B. Demented), and director and cast filmographies.
Sometimes the DVD reviewer's lot is not a happy one. Dead Simple provides one of those times. A lousy film, middling transfer, and condescending supplements add up to a DVD package to stay away from.
The verdict is dead simple here. Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Jason Bloom, Composer Andrew Gross, Production Designer Alexander Hammond, and Editor Luis Colina
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