Judge Brendan Babish's never even thought of killing himself over a girl. But that's probably just because he's never had a girlfriend.
Life is a trip, but the afterlife is one hell of a ride.
While making the rounds of film festivals throughout 2006 and 2007, Wristcutters: A Love Story slowly began building buzz and collecting awards, all of which led up to a limited theatrical run, tepid response from critics, and an unheralded DVD release this March. So which is it? Is Wristcutters a small-budget overachiever or an overrated indie?
Facts of the Case
When Zia (Patrick Fugit, The Amateurs) kills himself after getting dumped by his girlfriend, Desiree (Leslie Bibb, Hitched), he gets sent to a drab afterlife populated entirely with those who also committed suicide. Zia's existence is banal and hopeless; he lives in a shabby apartment and works in a pizza parlor, and his closest friend is a surly Russian named Eugene (Shea Whigham, Lords of Dogtown). However, when Zia learns that Desiree has killed herself in response to his own suicide, he brightens immediately. Desperate to find her in their formless purgatory, he sets off with Eugene for a road trip. Along the way, they pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon, 40 Days and 40 Nights), a recent, disgruntled arrival to the afterlife. She wants to find the person in charge and petition for a transfer, as she claims she never committed suicide. The three set out on their merry way, on a vague search that seems to lack direction and have scant chance for success.
Wristcutters: A Love Story is an ambitious and imaginative film, which is unusual for one with such a small budget. That said, this is by far the movie's biggest strength. When Wristcutters works best, it is because of its uniqueness. Although there are numerous cinematic depictions of the afterlife—two of my modern favorites are Beetlejuice and Defending Your Life—I don't think I have ever seen one so underwhelming. This "hell" for those who kill themselves isn't fiery or torturous or even incredibly bleak. This is no Mad Max afterworld. This is just dull. Very, very dull. And that, strangely enough, is funny. If only the film's writers and actors could have populated this setting with vibrant characters to contrast with their surroundings, Wristcutters could have been a great film.
Instead, Zia comes off as one of the most nondescript leading men in recent cinematic history. He's not funny and not particularly angst-ridden (despite the suicide), and he exhibits none of the passion one would expect from a character who would travel great distances, with little expectation of success, to find a girl. His friend Eugene is a gruff Russian, but he never really breaks out of this one-note stereotype. In many ways Eugene reminds me of Vlad, the character brilliantly played by Jared Harris in Todd Solondz's Happiness. However, Vlad was both amusing and threatening, and he exhibited real emotion; Eugene just seems tired and irritable throughout most of the picture. The second half of the film does feature welcome appearances by Tom Waits (Short Cuts) and Will Arnett (Arrested Development). Though both actors seem to be regurgitating past performances, they provide a color and levity that the movie otherwise lacks.
Additionally, Wristcutters' storyline, like its characters, is short on excitement or real drama. Zia and Eugene set off to find Desiree, but it is never explained how they hope to achieve this. Their meandering car ride is just that—meandering. We don't know where they're going and they don't know where they're going, and nothing much happens along the way. As for Zia's burning love for Desiree, we don't see it, don't feel it, and don't much care about it. Mikal's arrival provides a small spark as a potential love interest for Zia, but this is telegraphed so plainly, and Zia is so vanilla, it's difficult to understand or care.
There are a few wry jokes along the way that prevent the film from becoming completely tedious. Whenever a new character is introduced there is a brief flashback showing us how they committed suicide. (Okay, that probably doesn't sound funny, but these are often staged for laughs—or at least chuckles.) Also, as mentioned previously, the ingenuity with which writer/director Goran Dukic has crafted this afterlife is almost enough to keep the audience interested, if not necessarily entertained throughout. So what we end up with is a low-rent heaven that is, in a way, a metaphor for the movie itself: kind of cool, very underwhelming, and ultimately not much fun.
Wristcutters is a low-budget film, and looks it. The sets and locations are drab and filled with worn-out goods and clothing. To a large extent this run-down look was cultivated, but the look—and the mediocre picture quality—make the film uneasy on the eyes. There are, however, loads of thoughtful extras that should be of great interest to fans of the film (of which I hear there are many). I was particularly surprised to find that the extra scenes are as good as anything that made the final cut.
Wristcutters: A Love Story exhibits enough creativity and originality to merit interest, but its flat characters and storyline prevent it from producing any great drama or affecting romance. As cinematic explorations of the afterlife go, it's several notches below Beetlejuice and Defending Your Life, but slightly better than What Dreams May Come.
Guilty of meandering, which is kind of like loitering but over a greater distance.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Goran Dukic, Actors Patrick Fugit, and Mikal Portnoi Lazarev, and Producer Tatiana Kelly
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