The Reeler


October 18, 2007

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Endearing and intelligent vision of the afterlife may soften even the hardest of hipster asses

Wristcutters: A Love Story. The title alone sounds terrible: tragedy + whimsy = indie! And yet: Imagine a less-noxious version of Garden State's sensibility multiplied by an English-language remake of Kore-Eda Hirokazu's After Life and you'll start to get a more suitable equation for this film. From Garden State comes the unapologetic, romance-fixated slacker sensibility; from After Life comes the idea of, well, an afterlife with no moral underpinnings, a desaturated doppelganger world organized strictly along bureaucratic lines. Blending these two differently flawed movies comes out better than it sounds.

Directed and co-written (with author of the film's source short story, Israeli it-writer Etgar Keret) by Goran Dukic, Wristcutters opens with Zia (Patrick Fugit) lying in bed, catatonic. He reaches over and starts his turntable: Tom Waits's melancholy skronk comes out. Zia, like many a hipster, has the soundtrack to his own life cued up, and Waits sings of madness and suicide as Zia cleans his room -- disposing of take-out containers and removing the laundry from its hanging post on the floor lamp. When his room is a functional space again, Zia goes to the bathroom, slits his wrists with a razor, and collapses to the floor. The last thing he sees before dying is the dustball that got away. He winces at this final indignity.

The afterlife, as portrayed in the film, doesn't have a name or designated purpose. "Everything's the same here," Zia muses in voiceover. "It's just a little worse." Shot around Los Angeles, Wristcutters is at the very least a remarkable collection of shittiness: Cars are stripped of their license plates and inside paneling; diners have hand-written signs above them just saying "Food."

Zia whiles away his working days at Kamikaze Pizza, scraping dropped pies off the floor without anyone caring, and spending his down time at a cheerless bar where "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays mockingly in the background. What he really wants is to reconnect with the woman who drove him to suicide in the first place -- a blonde temptress unsubtly named Desiree (Leslie Bibb) -- but until then, he's content to hang around with Eugene (Shea Whigham). Who better to enjoy a dreary, color-drained wasteland with than a Russian émigré punk rocker? They're half-dead already.

Eventually, Zia hears that Desiree has followed him to the afterlife and hits the road with Eugene in search of her. It's the film's most endearing section, a shaggy-dog road trip with gypsy music and picturesque desert landscapes; Shannyn Sossamon livens up the scenery immensely as thumb-sucking hitchhiker Mikal. Once the odd trio get to Tom Waits's camping ground (don't ask), the film swerves into sloppier territory: a lengthy subplot about a loon (Will Arnett) trying to separate his soul from his body goes nowhere. "Separation" effectively means re-committing suicide, proving once more that you should appreciate where you are no matter how bad it is, not kill yourself. When the admirably unexplained nature of the afterlife is subjected to increasingly strained metaphysical metaphors, and Zia learns to embrace the moment and love life (well, "life"), Wristcutters becomes the sentimental film it had previously insisted it was not, wrapping up all of its loose ends with a climactic set-piece that feels out of step with the low-key first half. One broad metaphor is enough for any movie, and the Wristcutters landscape is exactly that; everything else is overkill.

The final twist is satisfying despite its obviousness, however, and you (or I, anyway) have got to love a vision of the afterlife where Tom Waits is an angelic arbiter; who better to judge your fate, really, than Mr. Depraved Bohemian himself? I can't in good conscience give Wristcutters an unqualified endorsement -- it's rote in delineating the growing romantic tension between Zia and Mikal, and it's prone to occasional quirk/bathos overload. But it's also endearing without losing its intelligence, and even we hardasses need an occasional, unabashedly feel-good movie.

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