Like the events that set the movie in motion, The High Cost of Living is a series of blind miscalculations. From the sore-thumb miscasting of Zach Braff in one of the two central roles to the way writer/director Deborah Chow blindly abandons a better, richer character story in favor of a tired cycle of trauma, healing, and regret, Living is draining, taking its time to tell a story the audience will almost certainly be far ahead of, waiting for the film to catch up.
Braff plays Henry, an American living in Canada. He's a glib, self-satisfied drug dealer who spends his nights taking calls and hopping from club to club to find his anxious clients -- when they call, he listens for a few seconds, doesn't say anything, and hangs up. While searching for one client's house, he turns the wrong way down a one-way street and can't stop his car in time to avoid hitting Nathalie (Isabelle Blais). Nathalie gets off with a mild concussion, but her baby, only a few weeks away from delivery, does not survive. As she spirals a deep depression, she finds herself moving away from her overworked, emotionless husband (Patrick Labbé), and clinging to the memory of the baby.
Despite a few plot contrivances, the character of Nathalie is complex and compelling. Blais has a couple of good scenes reacting to Labbé's emotional obliviousness, and Chow's idea that Nathalie is forced to keep carrying the baby after its death (doctors feel it's too traumatic for her to complete a stillborn delivery so soon after the accident) is really haunting and sad. But Chow would rather focus on Henry, busy digging his own grave: he enlists Johnny (Julian Lo), son of the owners of the Chinese restaurant Henry is living above, to find out what happened to Nathalie after the accident. This leads to Henry following her, which leads to him meeting her, and, suddenly, her moving in with him as her marriage finally collapses. I suppose many writers prefer the challenge of writing from a perspective unlike their own, but it's unusual how Chow has created a female character with a uniquely feminine trauma, and then ditched her to spotlight Henry instead.
Of course, it would also make sense if Henry was an interesting character, but he isn't. Sometimes good people accidentally do bad things, Chow and Braff don't have any light to shine on this idea. Part of it is Braff's performance: although he delivers a few douchebag lines at the beginning, there's never any sense Henry was less than a genuinely nice person, and his sadness frequently registers as very "wounded puppy dog" instead of "emotional wreck." As for Chow, she robs us of Henry's crucial post-accident panic, skipping right to Nathalie awakening in the hospital, so we never see that transformation. Instead, she treats us to a whole encyclopedia's worth of tired moments, like a session of Goofy Bonding (the two play hopscotch with a bottle of scotch), the Tender Moment (Henry reads to Nathalie after she has a bad dream), and the Failed Confession (Nathalie thinks Henry is going to talk about completing the delivery). She can't even resist allowing a hint of romantic attraction to seep into a scene, even though it would make perfect sense at that particular moment for Henry to reject it.
As the film progresses, each development in Henry and Nathalie's relationship requires a larger investment of the audience's suspension of disbelief, all while Chow continues to ignore Nathalie's feelings by reflecting them through Henry's shallow reactions. If more of the relationship (and inevitable fallout) were played from Nathalie's perspective, The High Cost of Living might have been able to scratch at some true emotional conflict. One such moment, between Nathalie and Johnny, is heart-stopping and evocative, putting the audience into Nathalie's shoes for one reeling moment. Sadly, Chow quickly resumes telling the story from the outside in, more concerned with the (tired) surface details of the story than exploring those details through her characters.
The art for The High Cost of Living is quite misleading -- standard "quirky independent movie" hand-lettered title treatment, Braff with a smiling Blais behind him. To be honest, when I pulled it from the DVDTalk screener pile, I kind of thought it'd be a quirky romance about a financially beleagured couple. Oops. The disc comes with a cardboard slip identical to the case art, and a flyer for the Tribeca Film Festival inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Figuratively and literally, The High Cost of Living is a dark movie, and it's the latter that plagues the movie's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The transfer tries its best to resolve extremely dark and dingy bars and resulting grain, but the result is heavy crushing, fuzziness, and tiny but ever-present artifacts crawling across the image. In brighter scenes, the crush and artifacts mostly disappear, but the image remains soft. I also spotted an instance of posterization, and contrast seems a little weak -- bizarre that most scenes seem a touch washed out when others have crushing issues. Lenient viewers or people with smaller displays may not notice these issues, but for everyone else, this is a pretty rough looking presentation.
For some strange reason, the disc defaulted to Dolby Digital 2.0 instead of the 5.1 track. The 5.1 track has much better ambience: early club scenes give the movie some chances to create an immersive atmosphere, and there is an interesting moment late in the movie when the sound of a car radio fights with the score as a dramatic device. However, the film is mostly quiet dialogue scenes, which are clear and free of noise. Since the film is set in Canada, about half the dialogue is in French, with burned-in English subs. If your TV has closed captioning functions, that option is available, and they do not play over the French dialogue. (Note: the packaging reads "English and French with English subtitles," in reference to the dialogue only; the two tracks here only contain the mixed language as opposed to the disc containing separate "English" and "French" tracks.)
The only extra feature on the disc is a very short Interview With Zach Braff (3:19). It's clearly more of a promotional clip -- presented by American Express! -- than a DVD feature, spending more time with clips from the film than Braff, who basically just has time to explain the story.
A Tribeca/American Express promo (featuring the short Mr. Stache) and trailers for Non-Educated Delinquents and The Bleeding House play before the main menu. No trailer for The High Cost of Living is included.
There's potential in a story like the one Deborah Chow has created for The High Cost of Living -- its resemblance, to, say, Another Earth, a movie I loved, is uncanny. But Chow only examines the story as a bigger picture, refusing to really dive into the character that matters and explore the most painful aspects of her emotional conflict. Skip it.
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