(Magnolia) Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Mitzi McCall, Henry Simmons, Geoff Pierson, Morgan Murphy, Daniel Glick, Evan Martin, Bruce Hornsby. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
When someone dies young, there is a tendency to accentuate the more positive aspects of the deceased’s character and ignore the negative. After all, nobody particularly likes to speak ill of the dead, right?
Lance Clayton (Williams) is a wannabe novelist, one who has written five novels and gotten exactly zero of them published. Still, he continues to try and while he does, he continues with his temporary vocation, a high school English teacher reading poetry to students who could care less.
His son Kyle (Sabara) is a rat bastard. He is hateful to nearly everybody and is sexually obsessed to the point of creepiness. Masturbation isn’t just an occasional pleasure for him; it’s the biggest part of his day. His only friend is Andrew (Martin), a skinny reed of a boy who is much brighter than Kyle.
Kyle regards Lance with roughly the same contempt that a billionaire regards a bum. Still, Lance can take solace in his sexless romance with Claire (Gilmore), who teaches art at the same school but even that soon becomes threatened. Fellow teacher Mike (Simmons) publishes his first story in the New Yorker and suddenly Claire seems to be casting her gaze in Mike’s direction. That’s not too much of a shocker; Claire is remarkably shallow and Mike is much younger and more handsome than Lance.
One night Lance returns home to find Kyle dead. The death was accidental; he had strangled himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, but despite the harsh relationship he had with his son, he simply can’t bear the truth coming out about the manner in which Kyle, already pretty much despised by everyone, died – whipping his weasel as it were. As a loving dad, he rearranges the death scene, writes a suicide note and puts out the fiction the Kyle hung himself.
The fall-out from this is unexpected. Suddenly the student body and faculty become sympathetic, guilty at the shabby treatment Kyle had been afforded in life. When Lance writes a fake journal purportedly authored by Kyle, it becomes a sensation and Lance suddenly has the literary success that had always eluded him, even if he wasn’t getting credit for it. Now there are appearances on talk shows and talk of movie deals. Even Claire has come back to him with a vengeance.
But it’s all based on a lie, and that digs at him. The strange thing is that the effects of the lie have made things better; people are opening up, communicating and coming out. But can Lance’s conscience live with the deception?
Goldthwait has given us what can charitably be called offbeat comedies (in the form of the alcoholic circus performer Shakes the Clown and the bestiality comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie) and more accurately called button-pushers. As a filmmaker (and before that, as one of the best stand-up comics of the ‘80s) he has pushed the boundaries and forced his audiences to look at unpleasant things in order to deal with issues like trust and fear.
Here he works with his close friend Williams and it’s a good pairing; this is one of Williams’ best performances in ages, maybe going back to Good Morning Vietnam. He handles the pathos of discovering his son’s body with great dignity, and keeps his comedy restrained. I guess it could be fair to say that he’s mellowed with age, but in any case, he’s become a much more well-rounded performer, although I still recall his manic rants with fond affection.
Sabara has the thankless job of playing an utter douchebag, one who is without any positive qualities whatsoever. Not many actors, who as a species tend to crave attention and love, would even attempt a role like this but Sabara does it almost too well, making his early exit a relief in many ways. Gilmore plays the narcissistic shallow Claire with a certain amount of flair, even being brave enough to allow a couple of upskirt photos which become very germane to the plot.
The irony of the film is what I thought worked best about it; that the death of a miserable prick gets him nearly canonized which in turn brings about changes in attitude for the better. There’s a message there about how we choose to see things, and trying to grab something to identify with – one of the running conceits of the movie is how many “close friends” Kyle had after death when in reality his only friend was Andrew all along, and Andrew alone is the only one who gets off scot-free, being literally the only one in the movie who doesn’t exploit Kyle’s death for their own benefit.
There is a level of cynicism here that might give a few viewers some pause, but it would be wise to remember that what is depicted here is human nature nonetheless. I found the movie enjoyable, at its best curiously when it was more serious. It’s not that the comedy is unfunny; it’s just that the movie seemed to find its rhythm when it was looking at grief less cynically. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all then.
WHY RENT THIS: Comedy doesn’t get any blacker than this. Williams gives one of his better performances in years.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sabara is so unlikable it’s actually a relief when his character is killed off. The movie could have used a better balance between pathos and comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of vulgar language, some fairly sophisticated and twisted sexuality, drug use and deeply disturbing situations. I would probably restrict this to mature teens only and even then you might want to have the remote nearby in case of emergency fast-forward or full stop.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for Nirvana, has a cameo as a newspaper vendor who hugs Lance. The irony here is that one of the tangential themes is teen suicide, and of course Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Coabin committed suicide himself.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting music video for “I Hope I Become a Ghost” by the Deadly Syndrome, containing some minimalist surreal animation. Tres cool.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,805 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
TOMORROW: Beer for My Horses