(MGM/Bauer Martinez) Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Wilmer Valderrama, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Nora Dunn, Lukas Haas, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin Dunn, Ty Burrell. Directed by Finn Taylor
The human race numbers nearly seven billion people. That’s a lot of variety in the gene pool. That also means there are a lot of people whose genes the human race would be better off without; sometimes they demonstrate this in the method in which they remove themselves from said gene pool.
Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a police detective in San Francisco with a brilliant mind. In true Sherlock Holmes-like fashion he is able to observe the smallest details in order to create a profile of the criminals he is investigating. Unfortunately, he does have a slight hang-up; he has a phobia about the sight of blood. It causes him to faint. In that particular line of work, this can be a liability.
This comes to pass when he, through brilliant deductive work, manages to corner the North Beach serial killer (Nelson). However, when blood is shed, Burrows passes out and the killer gets away. He loses his job because of it.
Burrows is a methodical and logical sort, so he doesn’t panic. He knows that his gifts would be of great use in other industries. He has also developed a fascination for the recipients of the Darwin Awards – people who die in foolish and bizarre manners, so-named because those who cash out in these manners have failed the basic law of evolution: survival of the fittest. He realizes that the insurance companies pay millions out to survivors of these people and that his expertise might be useful in not only determining the difference between legitimate accidents and Darwin Award candidates, but also in pinpointing people who exhibit the kind of behavior that would make them susceptible to that kind of demise.
He interviews at a large insurance company to pitch them his skills. At first, the executive (Kevin Dunn) who is interviewing him is skeptical but when Burrows makes some observations of the executive that are painfully close to home based on almost no information, the executive changes his tune. He pairs Burrows with Siri Taylor (Ryder), an investigator who specializes in bizarre cases.
She is none too thrilled to have a new partner, but has to admit grudgingly that Burrows is good at what he does when he figures out that what appears to be an industrial accident when a vending machine falls on a hapless office worker (Burrell) is actually a result of that worker over-balancing the machine in violation of the warning plainly visible on it.
As they travel from city to city, Taylor is at first a bit put off by the fastidious Burrows’ quirks and mannerisms, and his almost total lack of social skills. However, as she begins to see the man behind the mannerisms, she grows softer towards him, especially as he saves the insurance company millions. However, Burrows has some unfinished business to take care of; a serial killer in San Francisco with whom Burrows must face down one last time.
I have to admit liking the concept for The Darwin Awards a great deal. The execution is another matter. Director Taylor stages the death sequences well enough and there is some morbid humor in them, but they aren’t enough to carry the movie. Fiennes isn’t a bad actor – he has shown some chops in Shakespeare in Love but he is very low-key, which works to a certain extent here but at times he is too deadpan. He could benefit from an infusion of a little Nicolas Cage.
Ryder is a fine actress as well, but the chemistry between her and Fiennes isn’t really there. Their romance isn’t really convincing and in all honesty, I think the plot could have done without it. It’s a cliché that brings things down a little bit.
One of the conceits used in the movie is that Burrows is being followed around by a documentary filmmaker (Valderrama) who is using the footage (starting when Burrows was a police officer and carrying over to his new job) for a graduate thesis. There are moments when the movie benefits from it, but the filmmakers try too hard to integrate the documentarian into the action, especially joking how he is unwilling to help when someone is in trouble, even refusing to dial 911 when the serial killer is cornered. That whole component could have been done better, and have still been funny.
Black comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off. The filmmakers have to walk a very thin line between funny and grim, and sometimes it pays off – and other times it doesn’t. There are moments that make The Darwin Awards worth a look, but too often I found myself wishing the filmmakers had come up with a better film.
WHY RENT THIS: The premise is mightily intriguing. Some of the death scenes are cleverly staged.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fiennes’ character gets a little bit too over-the-top with the quirkiness. Deadpan humor gets to be so deadpan as to be un-funny.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some squirm-inducing death scenes, a little bit of drug usage and sexuality as well as a fair amount of blue language, all enough to make this unsuitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Mythbusters” hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appear as surplus store salesmen to the rocket car driver; in the first episode of the show, they dealt with this very urban myth.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Amateurs