Appellate Judge Tom Becker is planning a reality series about cutting-edge funerals, Project Runwake.
"I've searched for the answer in love, it was not there, nor was it present when I searched for it in family, nor did I find it in the arms of a woman, so I ask you, have I wasted my final day searching in vain?"
A while back, I reviewed a 1960s film called Chamber of Horrors that had a gimmick: the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn, cheesy A/V tricks that let the audience know when some terrible mayhem was going to take place on screen. I'd like to see that concept updated for self-consciously cute indies like The Living Wake. It could be called "The Whimsy Warning," some kind of strobe-and-shriek effect to announce that something oh-so-clever is going to happen in the movie. Of course, in the case of The Living Wake, something oh-so-clever happens about every 12 seconds, so The Whimsy Warning would be working overtime and the film's run time would be stretched so far they'd have to retitle it The Living Wake Alexanderplatz. Seriously, if this film were any more precious, they'd have to subtitle it "Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire."
Our story is of iconoclast K. Roth Binew (Mike O'Connell, who also wrote this), who has just been told he is dying of "a grave yet vague disease." Grave yet vague, perhaps, but precise: K. Roth is due to exit this mortal coil at precisely 7:30 p.m. He spends his measured final hours being pedaled around in a makeshift rickshaw piloted by his acolyte, Mills (Jesse Eisenberg, Adventureland), meeting up with all sorts of quirky folks and planning his Living Wake, where all the people he's ever known will come to see him off.
K. Roth reconnects with his nanny, who was his first love, and his mother and brother, who have no use for him. He tries to get a librarian to stock the books he's written, visits a prostitute, steals a goat, and battles a neighbor, all the while sharing twee commentary with Mills. The Living Wake turns out to be less of a goodbye party and more of a kind of amateur night audition, with K. Roth singing songs, performing skits, and doing a Q-and-A session with his audience as Mills counts down the minutes.
One thing poor K. Roth cannot resolve: His absent father, who walked out on the family when K.R. was just a lad, but not before promising the boy "a brief but powerful monologue" that will, evidently, shed some light on this mystery we call life.
A quirked-out, cloying mess of overheated whimsy, The Living Wake plays like a parody of a death-and-dying film. Unfortunately, I don't think it's supposed to be a parody at all. I think we're actually supposed to take these characters to heart, be enthralled with the bloatedly bizarre scenarios K. Roth encounters on his journey, and be moved as the end draws nigh. But instead of a fresh and clever film that treads off the beaten path, The Living Wake is desperately and bombastically eccentric, with no real point beyond cramming as many possible scenes of oddness into one place.
Rather than building this around an identifiable central character, Writers O'Connell and Pete Kline give us the aggressively irritating K. Roth. Ridiculously theatrical and speaking with an elevated, stylized syntax ("Are you all right, friend? You seem to have transcended pale," he asks a mortician shocked at his request to make his own funeral arrangements), he's a cartoon character who gets into cartoonish situations. It's not enough to have him tooling around in a bicycle rickshaw merrily preparing for his own, precisely timed demise. We are also subjected to such contrived ridiculousness as his neighbor trying to slow him down by pelting him with rusty nails and hamsteaks, and later, a song and dance number in a graveyard. Just as we don't worry about Wile E. Coyote's health when one of his Acme gizmos backfires, so do we not get a throat lump for the plight of the doomed K. Roth, despite the violin-heavy score cuing us otherwise. Cheap jokes stand in for emotional resonance, so a reunion with his nanny turns into a gag about French kissing an older woman, and a reading of one of his failed stories—which is actually pretty funny—diverts from a wistful "Why didn't I succeed?" into a badly staged slapstick of a woman beating him with her handbag. O'Connell clearly loves this character, none too wisely, but too well, and his florid portrayal inspires more groans than grins.
While K. Roth is the leading irritant, O'Connell, Kline, and director Sol Tryon have knocked themselves out creating a universe of the weird, so there's no balance. Had they positioned K. Roth and Mills as the lone voices of eccentricity in an otherwise mundane world, we might have been able to appreciate the character as a colorful outsider. Instead, everyone is calculatedly daffy. There is not a single, recognizable human being to be found here. Everyone does silly, broad shtick that I guess is supposed to be funny, outrageous, and/or endearing, but it becomes tiresome before the clock hits double digits. It's as though the filmmakers' entire reference for how people behave is limited to what they've seen in other movies, even coyly using the clichéd "brief but powerful monologue" as its tongue-in-cheek central conceit.
The film is shot in soft light, giving it a sort of timeless, ethereal quality. Looking at it, it could be a period piece, but the script is larded with too many pop references and other giveaways for this to be so. The fairy-tale quality of cinematography, coupled with the broad shenanigans, suggests that this might be a family-friendly parable—until the writers toss off lines like "Make haste to the prostitute, my erection is strong and I wish to celebrate my manhood two or three final times," or have K. Roth get vengeance on an unpleasant neighbor by announcing, "When you return home tonight, you will find that I have s**t in all of your pants," because scatological humor can be whimsical too.
Breaking Glass sent over a screener that contained nothing but the film with the words "For Screening Purposes Only" burned in, so I can't say whether the full-frame transfer and stereo audio track bear any resemblance to what the finished product will be. I believe the release will contain a few supplements, but there aren't any here.
Some people might find this uplifting or clever, but it's so stridently whimsical and nakedly focused on becoming a "cult classic," that the payoff is far less then the investment of sitting through it.
Guilty. Requiescat in pace—and not a moment a too soon.
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