A Date With Death


He sat nervously at the table, checking his watch. He was new to this online dating thing. He’d never thought of himself as particularly handsome nor possessed of much of a personality. He was pretty much a boring fellow. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to him was missing a flight.

Even his “narrow brush with death” stories were dull. He had been booked to fly aboard Flight 392 to Cincinnati for an insurance conference when he got inexplicably but violently ill. He spent the next two hours in the bathroom, puking his guts out. He’d wound up missing the flight which was a good thing because one of its fuel lines had ruptured and soaked the engine with gasoline and the plane had exploded, killing everyone onboard.

Except for Milton, who was at first erroneously reported as one of the dead. Nobody had noticed, even those who knew he was supposed to be on that plane. That had been a few months ago, and things had pretty much settled back to normal, which for Milton was an epic shitfest of craptastic proportion.

Milton had always had trouble meeting girls. Not only was he not a looker he had the extra added attraction of being insanely shy. In his mid-30s, he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend ever nor had he ever been laid unless you count a hurried handjob that he’d gotten from a friend of his sister in high school in exchange for writing all of her term papers senior year.

Since the plane incident he’d been loath to leave his apartment. He felt as if he’d cheated death and death might have his eye on him. He felt this odd sensation as he walked around the apartment like something was watching him. He chalked it up to jitters and decided finally he needed to get out. On the spur of the moment, he signed up for an online dating service.

It was all kind of confusing and the questionnaire was rather personal. He debated as to whether to lie about his experiences and at last chose not to – Milton was honest if not experienced; he felt any date would know that he was inexperienced right away and best not to waste their time with false expectations

So imagine his surprise after a week of nothing he got a response. And not from just anyone but from a gorgeous blonde that would make Nicole Kidman look homely. She said she was interested and wanted to meet for dinner; Milton had chosen the bistro but pretty soon the nerves began to set in. It was all he could do to get himself ready and tying his tie had been a nightmare.

Still, he went out to the dinner optimistic. Maybe even a homely fellow like him could find happiness. So I showed up in a suit and tie, waiting patiently as she was fashionably late.

Then she showed, her golden hair offset by a jet black dress, elegant and yet sexy; off one shoulder, deep cleavage and short showing plenty of leg. Her eyes were full of merriment as she crossed the room, her eyes full of joy and delight. Milton rose and reverently took her hand and kissed it European-style. She looked a little surprised but pleased.

“So what’s good here,” she asked taking the menu. He was dumbstruck for a few minutes but found his voice. “I don’t know. I’ve never been here before” She laughed, a silvery sound and tossed her hair back, Rita Hayworth-style. “Then we’ll explore together.” She ordered a filet mignon rare, while Milton ordered a roast chicken dish which was about the limits of what he could afford.

They made small talk over salad; when the main course arrived, she dug in with great gusto while Milton picked at his chicken. She was way out of his league and he knew it but if she didn’t know it then he wasn’t about to tell her. Things were going so much better than he ever expected they would.

They began telling stories of their lives together; she talked about her job which took her all over the world and left little time for herself; she didn’t specify but it sounded like some sort of executive position, or at least something in acquisitions. He told her about his recent luck, which she listened to, eyes glued to him as if there had been Krazy Glue involved.

She asked a lot of questions about how he felt about surviving; good, he supposed but there was a lot of guilt. Why had so many died and he was spared? She shook her head sadly. “I don’t know,” she said, “It almost sounds like there was a mistake in accounting, don’t you think?” That took him a little bit aback but he shrugged, not wanting to disagree when things are going so well.

“Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you’d made the flight?” she asked him. He was going to say no but something about her made him completely at ease, as if telling the truth was all right no matter how horrible. “Sometimes,” he admitted, “I imagine sitting in my seat, hearing the explosion and seeing the flames approaching. It all seems so real but then I wake up at home in my bed. There are days when I’m so lonely I wish I had made that flight.”

She gave him a sympathetic look. “You haven’t tried to kill yourself have you?” He shook his head vehemently. “Oh no, no, no, no, no. When I was younger, yeah but not really seriously. I took a bunch of pills but just threw them up. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” She looked at him strangely but said “Yes Milton, for everything there is a time, including dying.”

Again, a strange answer but Milton found himself answering “I guess it just wasn’t my time yet.” She laughed, but there was an edge to it Milton didn’t like. He wondered if he liked where this conversation was going. She responded “And how would you know that it wasn’t?” She shook her head. “It’s not like you get an e-mail telling you that you’re going to die next Thursday. No phone calls saying death is going to visit between two and four pm the next day. Death comes when death comes and that’s all there is to it. But sometimes a few people fall through the cracks. They get a bit of extra time. Do you follow soccer Milton?” Milton couldn’t say that he did.

She went on, “In a soccer game after regulation time ends, time is added for all the stoppages – penalties, injuries, that sort of thing. The game doesn’t end until that extra time is over. That’s what it’s called Milton, extra time. It sounds to me that you’ve been living on extra time.” Milton shrugged. “I suppose so. Of course there’s no way to really know.”

She shook her head. “Oh but there is. Let me see….” She picked up her purse and started rummaging through it. Finally, she found what she was looking for. “Here it is! Take a look” and she handed Milton what looked like a computer printout.

On it there were some of the facts of his life; his date of birth, where he went to school, how old he was when he lost his virginity (that field was blank), where he worked, how much he made – his whole life reduced to a single sheet of paper. He shook his head ruefully…and then turned pale.

At the bottom it read “Date of Death: 07/22/12.” The date of the plane crash. He looked up at her quizzically. “I don’t understand.” Her eyes rolled. “For a smart guy Milton you can be pretty dense. It’s right there in black and white. You were meant to be on that flight. So were a bunch of teenagers returning home from space camp and I have to tell you, it’s been insane chasing them down.”

She got up and Milton took another bite of his chicken, swallowing the piece before he’d thoroughly chewed it. Abruptly he felt something scratchy going down his throat – and lodging there. He couldn’t breathe. He began to gag, trying to expel the object. “A chicken bone, Milton. Not the most glorious way to go – I’m sure you’d have gotten more sympathy from dying in the plane crash but I promise you, this is less painful.”

As he choked, he gasped out “H-help. Please. Hit my back…do someth….” he was losing air fast.  She shook her head sadly. “I have a tally to keep Milton. All must be accounted for but sometimes some slip through the cracks. I have to find them and I really don’t have the staff for it. It’s a big world, after all. But now, with you, the balance is restored. Everything is as it should be again.”

He tried to get up but Milton felt numb everywhere. He fell to the floor. She stood over him, sorrowfully. “It’s not like the movie Milton. I don’t make these elaborate, sophisticated accidents. It just causes too much attention. I find simple is better, don’t you?” The fields of his vision were turning black. She picked up her purse which he swore looked like a scythe, pausing thoughtfully to leave cash for the bill and a tip. She bid him a jaunty farewell as she walked away into the night. His last thoughts were to wonder why his dates always went so badly at the end.

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Jeff, Who Lives at Home


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel believes he's being stalked by Muppets.

(2012) Comedy (Paramount Vantage) Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Evan Ross, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Benjamin Brant Bickham, Lee Nguyen, Tim J. Smith, Ernest James, Katie Aselton, Joe Chrest, Lance E. Nichols, Carol Sutton. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

 

Families are complicated things that we rarely can make heads or tails of, even of our own. We mostly see the people in our families as filling certain roles and rarely can adjust our thinking beyond those definitions we ourselves set. A lot of times those definitions are there from years of observation and experience but every so often those in our family can surprise us.

Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old unemployed man who lives in his mom’s basement and apparently has little ambition beyond getting stoned every day. His mom (Sarandon) is exasperated beyond words; she longs for him to find some sort of path that he can follow through life but he doesn’t seemed interested in finding one.

The truth is that Jeff really wants to find that path but isn’t quite sure how. He has determined that life is a series of signs and portents that one must be open to receiving and able to interpret once received. Jeff thinks he is able to do this but thus far hasn’t found the right way yet. So when he gets an angry phone call from a man demanding to speak to Kevin (there is no Kevin in the household) that starts the ball rolling.

It’s also his mom’s birthday and she wants just one thing from him; to go down to the local Home Depot (a bus ride is required) and pick up some wood glue to fix a slat on the shutter doors of the kitchen pantry. While on the bus, he sees someone with the name Kevin on a basketball jersey and follows him, leading him off the path of the wood glue and onto the path of something else.

Pat (Helms) is the married, responsible one. Or at least he is on the surface. In reality his marriage to Linda (Greer) is falling apart at the seams; there is little if any communication going on between them. Judy wants them to save their money to buy a house so that they can raise a family; Pat wants to buy a Porsche so that they can…own a Porsche. Pat impulsively buys one, prompting Judy to dump her breakfast over the car.

The paths of Pat and Jeff cross, leading the Porsche to take a path into a nearby tree. Their paths then intersect with Linda, who apparently is meeting another man in a fancy Bistro that Pat has refused to take her to. Linda’s path then takes her to a hotel room with that man while Pat and Jeff take separate paths, all leading to the same place.

Jeff’s mom, Sharon, is also on a path, looking for the kind of fulfillment and appreciation that comes from a close relationship but she’s been unable to form one since her husband had passed away. She confides in Carol (Chong), a friend from work that she’s been receiving some secret admirer messages from someone at work, but doesn’t know who it is. She is troubled by the attention but also intrigued by it.

Where will this all end up? I can tell you a few things for certain without giving too much away – one, all of the main characters will end up in wet clothes. Two, all paths lead towards New Orleans over the Pontchartrain Bridge. Third, some things take more than wood glue to fix.

The Duplass brothers, who directed this, have a fair amount of indie cred with such films as Baghead and The Puffy Chair to their credit. Their movies tend to be low-key and charming with a certain amount of complexity under the surface that make them ideal for discussion for days after you’ve seen them. They also know how to coax subtle, nuanced performances from the actors in their films and they do the same here.

Segel is rapidly becoming one of the most likable performers in Hollywood. He is big and lovable to the point where his brother calls him a sasquatch, but also has plenty of goofy stoner in him. There are those who compare Segel (somewhat unfairly) to Seth Rogen who is a different kind of performer. Not that Rogen isn’t a nice guy, Segel just seems nicer (see The Muppets). Here he is just kind of treading water through life, allowing the current to take him wherever it will. That can be kind of irritating to those who prefer to swim their own course as most of us do but Jeff is anything but a control freak – he prefers to see what is going to happen rather than making things happen.

Helms is rapidly becoming a go-to guy in the comedy landscape with roles in “The Office” as well as The Hangover series, as well as Cedar Rapids. This is a bit of a departure for him – he is not the lovable nerd here but he is more of a hustler sort, the kind of role more familiar to guys like Vince Vaughn. If this were a different sort of movie, I might have even preferred Vaughn in the part but to be honest, as much of a con-man as Pat is the movie wouldn’t be able to accept someone as over-the-top as Vaughn. Helms gives it just the right amount of undertones.

Judy Greer has graduated from mainly playing the best friend of the rom-com lead to playing terrific wives criminally ignored by their husbands (as she does in The Descendants). She is one of those actresses who doesn’t get a lot of kudos but quietly performs strongly in every role she takes on. This is the kind of part that can be easily overlooked by a performer of her caliber makes that impossible to happen.

Because Jeff is so innately a good guy, the movie has a quiet sweetness to it that never gets too sentimental or too saccharine. However, the Duplass brothers seem bound and determined to brand this as an indie feature; they have a tendency to zoom the camera in nearly every scene as kind of a Duplass trademark. It gets irritating after awhile and seems to be a minor case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

This isn’t a movie that is going to overwhelm you or offer some life-shattering insight, although you may come to one eventually on our own. It isn’t going to be the kind of movie you leave with your sides aching with laughter, although you will at least chuckle at some of the situations. This is a movie about life and about the resilience of family to overcome even the greatest of gulfs. I like this movie and even if it doesn’t shout its name from the rooftops, well, a quality movie doesn’t have to.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet to its core but not so sweet your blood sugar spikes. Nice performances from the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Camera moves draw attention to themselves. Occasionally suffers from over-quirkiness.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language including some with sexual connotations, and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the movie was shot in New Orleans suburb Metairie, doubling for Baton Rouge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are good though not great.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cyrus

STREET BALL LOVERS: Early on, Jeff participates in a pretty convincing game of street basketball, although Segel appears more adept at hoops than you think he might be.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Ranch