As if politically-themed feature films weren't causing enough headaches in recent months with their lackluster artistic vision, "Day Zero" comes along to set the bar on the lowest rung imaginable. It's purely amateur hour here; a laughably produced elegy for the common man facing war time blues, placing substantial dramatic weight on the shoulders of one of Hollywood's larger professional question marks, Chris Klein. Ouch.
With terrorism and combat fatigue on the rise, the U.S. Government has decided to reinstate the draft, leaving cards in the hands of writer Aaron (Elijah Wood), lawyer George (Chris Klein), and cabbie Dixon (Jon Bernthal). Three buddies with serious reservations about this colossal development in their increasingly complicated lives, the men have 30 days to contemplate their military future, or dream up ways to dodge their responsibility.
The intention of "Day Zero" is easy to spot. It values itself as a warm discussion of hostile political events, dreaming up an alternate reality where another terrorist attack on Los Angeles has tipped America to the breaking point, dusting off the draft and pushing heterosexual men and women everywhere to confront an ominous sense of purpose. The concept of the film is thought-provoking and timely; however, the execution is wretched. Imagine a high school drama club borrowing "dad's" film equipment and deciding to make a "serious" movie over MEA weekend, and that's close to how "Day Zero" looks and feels.
The screenplay by Robert Malkani is a very theatrical affair, trying to spread a small budget around by assigning the characters tangled speeches on the nature of combat and the ultimate price of war. "Day Zero" raises somber questions about American obligation and the crisis of separation, but fumbles every last heartfelt intent with ludicrous dialogue that shatters the mournful ambiance. Malkani has no idea how to mold transparent sermonizing into plausible language, and director Bryan Gunnar Cole isn't smart enough to temper the soapbox mentality into a considerate movie.
However, trouble with speeches pales in comparison to the acting, which really sinks "Day Zero" into a quagmire of stupidity. Cole's direction is dreadful, obvious stuff, but when faced with the likes of Klein, who I can't believe still nabs work as an actor, the director's blunt edges here make more sense. Klein sucks every bit of life out of his scenes, emoting like a 10th year acting student who just isn't getting the hint that perhaps he should pursue other dreams. It punishes the small emotional reserves co-star Ginnifer Goodwin (as George's cancer-survivor wife) successfully manages to sneak into the moment.
Bernthal attempts some gut-level exploration of Dixon, but his performance overshoots the flimsy jingoistic simplicity of the character. He's a love-it-or-leave-it guy faced with new romance and a last-minute aversion to leaving his comfy inner circle. However, Bernthal plays him as a crude "Noo Yawk" gorilla, and the interpretation sprints past some important dramatic bullet points.
This leaves Wood with the most to accomplish: inhabiting a character completely freaked out by what the future holds, and determined to live life to the fullest. Aaron's "things to do" arc is the film's most compelling offering of drama, following the young man into desperate sexual adventures and constant introspection with his therapist (Ally Sheedy). Wood is skilled at the wispy man-cub material, but Aaron takes on a darker glow in the film's final act, embodying Travis Bickle-like menace as the character's fears start to burn into resentment. Elijah Wood is not a screen presence that can sell such heavy metal, and to witness the actor with his head-shaved, extravagantly tattooed, and snarling from behind oversized tough-guy sunglasses is sure to provoke laughter, not the misfortune proposed by the production.
Offered in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Day Zero" features a cloudy DVD image that matches the murky intent of film. With rampant color bleeding and nighttime shots that are completely lost to smeary black levels, the DVD presentation is a ghastly affair, making an already ugly, low-budget film nearly unwatchable at home.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix remains unassuming throughout the presentation of "Day Zero," only perking up during soundtrack cuts and a peace march sequence near the end of the film. Dialogue is presented with ideal clarity.
None, really. However, the folks at First Look Pictures provide trailers for upcoming product such as "King of California," "Blonde & Blonder," and "Strays" (among many others); the twist here is that the DVD is unable to skip past them once you pop the disc in. No fast-forwarding either.
"Day Zero" doesn't just comment on current political tides, it splashes into them with all the grace of a belly flop at the local community pool. It's a disastrous lecture on the fragility of average American concerns, fumbling critical questions of service, morality, and self-preservation. It's a loathsome dramatic realization incapable of provoking a true discussion of anything outside of Chris Klein and his bottomless ability to stink up any scene he participates in.