Saturday, January 26, 2008

Film Review: The Darwin Awards

The Darwin Awards - directed by Finn Taylor

Netflix has this "watch online" feature that comes in handy every once in a while. I've never heard of the vast majority of the movies listed, but it's kind of a nifty little device for those lazy Sunday mornings when you want a movie to go along with your coffee and you're not too picky about what you end up with. The Darwin Awards popped up on the front page, I read the description, thought, "Eh, why not?" and went for it. And you know what? It's the perfect sort of movie to watch online -- it's the sort of film where it's not really worth wasting a rental, but it is worth knocking an hour and a half off your instant watch time. Or worth watching on tv, I guess, but the censors would have their work cut out for them when it comes to all the f-bombs.

Basically, it's the story of an incredibly uptight ex-forensic psychologist (Joseph Fiennes) who decides to try working insurance and gets paired with a cynical, world-weary claims investigator (Winona Ryder) as they look into "Darwin Award" claims. There are two major subplots -- a documentarian following Fiennes around for his senior thesis, and a "serial killer that got away" plot that threads through the whole movie -- but mostly it's the story of the Fiennes/Ryder odd couple, and the people they're investigating. Overall, it's a cute movie. There's nothing ground-breaking about it, and I had fun playing "spot the cameo" (there are a LOT!), but ultimately I think it's the forced quirkiness that does it in. It's trying way too hard.

I'm usually good at suspending disbelief. It's probably one of the reasons I love action movies so much -- yes, the chances of a well-timed bullet blowing up an entire car are slim to none, but dammit, it looks cool! And so I cheerfully and willingly suspend all my disbelief so I can settle in and enjoy the hell out of whatever I'm watching, because when you get right down to it, a movie is a movie and sometimes it's more about having a good time than being realistic.

But even I have my limits, and every once in a while something comes up that makes me go, "Oh, come on." For instance...a forensic psychologist who faints at the sight of blood? COME ON. I can buy that the guy would be a consultant, but no way in hell would any sane police force give a man who faints at the sight of blood a fucking gun. If he shoots someone, he'd faint! What the fuck?! Throw in some borderline OCD and a complete inability to relate to people, and you've got yourself a character who's quirky as hell...and totally unbelievable. I know there are people like that in real life, but as with so many things, what works in real life doesn't always work in fiction. It's too much.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing abounds in The Darwin Awards. Unless you really know what you're doing, zaniness works well only in small doses. I feel like the filmmakers here were shooting for Coen-style wackiness, but instead of allowing it to happen organically, it was like they made a list of all the quirky things they could think of and then checked them off as they went, which...doesn't work. At all. The Coens excel at this sort of thing because they respect their characters and play the whole thing totally straight -- as weird as their movies sometimes get, there are realistic consequences for a lot of the action, and for all their quirks and conceits, their characters still feel like real people with realistic, reasonable motives. Once you lose sight of that, though, once you just start piling on the wackiness in the hopes that it will work...fuck it. You've lost the movie.

And the documentary issue...hoo boy. It's always risky introducing a documentarian into the works, because as awesome as it is when it works, it's really fucking obvious when it doesn't. Having the documentarian along pays off eventually, but it takes far too long to get there, and I found it incredibly distracting every time the movie broke from the documentary conceit to show things the camera never would've been able to catch. If the split was half and half, it would've been easier to swallow, but when the vast majority of the movie is being "filmed" by the everpresent guy with the camera, it's really noticeable when the film throws you out of that.

Even with all of its problems, though, there was still something weirdly charming about the whole thing. I'm sure this was partly because Joseph Fiennes looked like a depressed puppy for most of it, and the segments about the people who "Darwined" themselves were fairly entertaining. In fact, there was one about a man who tried to turn his Chevy into a rocket car that was astonishingly poignant, the sad portrait of a man who wanted to do something incredible for once in his life. In all honesty, I would've rather watched an entire movie about him. Perhaps directed by the Coen brothers. They would've done it right.

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