Few first time filmmakers take the opportunity to make an impression. Usually, they are merely trying to get their foot in the door, to impress the producers or the suits at the studio in hopes that movie numero uno is not their final cinematic fling. Sure, sometimes art and artifice mesh and create something unique and out of the ordinary, but for many trying to make it in the world of film, it's nothing more than a small success hoping to lead to larger, potential mainstream assignments. There's no sense of do or die, no feeling that they will make the most of their perhaps one and only time with a camera. That is clearly not the case with The Living Wake, however. Crafted by comedian Mike O'Connell as a means of showing off his various skills as actor, writer, music composer, and all around humor expert par excellence, this decidedly weird walk through the incessantly wacky side of a dying man's life is purposefully bizarre. It's also very clever, very cloying, and very aggravating. One thing it isn't however, is typical - and for that, the star and his supporters deserves a hogpile of quirk kudos.
Though he lives in one room of a men's hotel and is hated by most he interacts with, middle-aged sage K. Roth Binew believes himself to be a jack of all artistic trades and nothing short of a genius at each and every one of them - writer, sculptor, painter, philosopher. With his faithful assistant, rickshaw chauffer, authorized biographer, and dedicated sycophant Mills by his side, he heads out into this particularly fragrant fall morning to go about his important business. You see, Binew has been diagnosed with an unnamed disease that will definitely kill him at 7:30pm that evening, and he wants to invite all of his well-wishers, associates, enemies, and family members to his "living wake" - a scheduled celebration of his life and creative times. Of course, few can tolerate the arrogant nonconformist, and it's a fact that comes as a shock to the soon to be departed maverick. Still, he ventures forth, hoping his last hours will offer the comfort and joy his life has avoided like any kind of personal success.
If there is a fine line between quirky and irritating, The Living Wake finds it and crosses it several dozen times during its 90 minute run. As a surreal starring vehicle for Funny or Die fixture Mike O'Connell, this basic black comedy has eccentricity to spare. Focusing on the clueless, delusional lead and his universe of equally offbeat associates, we are prepared for something very unusual. Instead, we are ramrodded into a realm so unreal that we often wonder if we're watching a broadcast from another dimension. O'Connell cuts an impressive swath as a lead, looking like the genetic offspring of a Zach Galifianakis/Johnny Depp union, and his mannerism is so over the top and arch that you can't help but get caught up in his primping and posing. This is a movie that's all about tone and temperament. If you can handle to deranged dialogue, the narrative sputters, and a last act stage extravaganza that definitely overstays its welcome, you'll adore the overall experience. If any one of these twee elements gets on your nerves? Let's just say it's going to be a very, very long hour and a half.
If you give it your utmost attention and patience, things do sort of pay off eventually - kind of. O'Connell is very good in the role of self-described renaissance man, his own perverted perception of his importance an easily recognizable source of satire. After all, no one who writes a kid's book about magic purple pants (and jailhouse suicide) is meant to be taken 100% seriously. His is an amiable, all over the map, larger than life tour de force - and a flawless representation of what each of those cliches actually mean. But it's current rising star Jesse Eisenberg that actually walks away with the entire movie. As Mills, the manservant devoted to Binew's every whim, his earnest desire to please connects us to the material in a way that another character - or performance - wouldn't. Eisenberg is the open vessel into which all of his master's crackpot philosophy, an eager accomplice in his charades as well as a innocent being violated by Binew's egotistical insanity. Together, they form a core you can root for, even if the goals are goofy and the ambitions clouded in enough weirdness to make David Guest look positively milquetoast.
Still, not everything works here. O'Connell clearly believes that no hyper-realistic experience is complete without a song or two - a VERY LONG, time-sucking song or two. Indeed, toward the end, Binew breaks into a couple of mildly-clever-to-incredibly-annoying musical numbers which actually sap the energy out of the film. Sure, some of the lyrics are fun, and the Goth Greek chorus dance along is pretty neat, but the crooning does shout "aren't we being peculiar!" from the tallest cinematic mountaintop. Similarly, the constant appearances by Jim Gaffigan as Binew's dead-beat dad grow old as well. In the dream sequences, he's fine. In the demented dimension of the character's disconnect with reality, he's dull. In fact, the entire wake sequence is a paltry conclusion for all the whimsy that got us there in the first place. With its mixture of wit and wonky, this is not your average comedy. But instead of maintaining the same surreal strategies throughout, The Living Wake tends to dry up at the end. For many, it will be a long haul for such a fey finale.
Visually, the movie looks amazing, thanks in part to the gorgeous Maine in October settings. As fall colors fill the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, director Sol Tyron uses unusual angles and interesting compositions to keep this otherwise talky film from becoming visually dull. There is a period piece quality to the transfer, an occasionally muted dynamic that helps remove the material from the "modern" world. Overall, this is a good looking production.
There are times when the Doubly Digital Stereo 2.0 mix buries the dialogue behind the indie shoegazer score by Carter Little and O'Connell. At other instances, the audio is harsh and rather sharp. This is not the best sounding film ever to hit the digital medium, but since much of the movie is people discussing issues in loud to hysterical voices, the lack of modulation is a minor complaint at best.
This DVD release is overflowing with equally unusual added content. We are treated to a short film centering on Eisenberg's character ("The Re-Education of Mills Joquin") that is very clever, as well as three viral videos featuring "Musings with K. Roth Binew". There are also four rather funny deleted scenes, as well as a wonderful commentary track which gives us all the inside dirt on the production and how O'Connell came up with the character in the first place. All the bonus features are excellent and do what such extras do best - successfully supplement the main movie at hand.
The main obstacle to overcome with The Living Wake is not its desire to make every character a crazed outsider struggling to stay relevant in a world quickly condemning them as 'strange' or peculiar', nor is it the whimsical tone that often plays like a leprechaun puking up unicorns onto some Pixie Sticks. Instead, it's the lack of anything emotionally true, something that keeps us invested in the players beyond their intriguing personality quirks. As a result, a movie that might have been a cult concern is now nothing more than a Highly Recommended romp. If you're in the right frame of mind, you will find this amusing affectation a couple of steps away from classic. If you're expecting something recognizable or real, however, you'll despise every mannered moment. Either way, there are few films like The Living Wake - and in retrospect, it's hard to fathom if that's a good thing, or a bad one.