Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#135: The Good Life


The Good Life
Written and Directed by Stephen Berra
Released November 4, 2008

Holy Film School 101, Batman.

I don't know why, but I cannot seem to resist watching movies set in my home state of Nebraska. At this point I should probably know better, since the movies -- with a few exceptions -- are typically horrible (if you happened to read my review of the Dave Foley disasterpiece California Dreaming, I touched briefly on this compulsion).

In all honesty, it wasn't the setting that drew me to this movie, but the appearance of Zooey Deschanel and the convenience of it streaming on Netflix.

Its title taken from Nebraska's state motto, The Good Life is writer/director Stephen Berra's cinematic and questionably unintentional manifestation of every jaded high school poet's secret diary. Berra creates a fictional Nebraska town (I guess this is supposed to be Lincoln?) that looks more like a bad part of Detroit, inhabited by one of the saddest fucking sacks of a character named Jason (played convincingly by Mark Webber).

Jason is basically a mutt of a puppy that gets kicked around before our very eyes for 100 minutes. His father tells him he's ugly, and the rest of the family barely pays him any mind. He gets harassed and punched in the face by the town bully (a believable, if cartoonish, performance by Nebraska native Chris Klein). He works two jobs, one at a run down movie theater that somehow survives screening movies to two people a night, and the other at a gas station where every single patron threatens or abuses him.

Deschanel appears here, as she does in most movies, as the beautiful and sexually aggressive dream girl whom would normally be unattainable if she weren't a complete writer's construct. Examine her catalogue of performances, from Gigantic to even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, if you don't believe my claim that she has been officially typecast.

There is some question about her character's background and her sanity, until a completely unbelievable reveal late in the movie makes her character even more ridiculous. The chance encounter that enlightens Jason to her identity is the kind of coincidence that most teachers of creative writing must beat out of their adolescent students.

The plot itself can be boiled down to a singular thought that every whiny emo kid from any "small" town has had while toiling through Junior High: "These people don't get me, and I can't wait to get out of this town." But at no point in the film does Berra prove that it's the town that is holding this morose little mope-bag down. He shows us nothing to make us believe that Jason has squandered potential (beyond having Deschanel literally say it at one point), that he has an extraordinary mind or that he'd blossom under a different set of circumstances.

Sad to the point of being absurd, this shoe gazing wank fest's most redeeming qualities are its consistency of tone (DOUR) and some quality lighting and photography. Berra has definitely made a good looking film that never visually slips into the amateurish and pretentious traps of his script where he asks the audience to understand barely touched upon plot points and how they might affect our character. For example: we don't wind up understanding why he hates football, or even the city in which he lives; we are simply told how he feels.

The movie even manages to make the ultimate mistake by having its main character, in a bit of narration, LITERALLY SPELL OUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED. Here, read this and try not to roll your eyes:

But it's not pain. It's laughing with your friend at a time when you shouldn't. It's the sweat in your palms wanting to know someone you see and the pit in your stomach when they actually see you. It's being touched by hands that aren't your own. It's the thrill of an escape that almost wasn't. It's the embarrassment you feel, naked for the first time. It's helping a friend find something they lost. It's a smile, a joke, a song. It's what someone does that they like doing. It's what someone does that they like remembering. It's the thinking of things you may never do and the doing of things you may never have thought. It's the road ahead and the road behind. It's the first step and the last and every one in between, because they all make up the good life.

Holy shit, right? To make matters even worse, this monologue plays over the exact scenes from the movie the character is referring to, as if we've finally decoded some secret of the universe. Ugh.

The Good Life opens with a tracking shot that follows Jason to what seems like the site of his suicide. As the movie flashes back to the events leading up to this moment and you witness the pinnacle of hopelessness that has become his life, you'll almost find yourself hoping that the kid really goes through with it. It's the only ending that makes sense after this movie spends so much time staring at its own shoes.

Unfortunately, Berra doesn't let Jason or his audience so easily off the hook, giving us a completely unbelievable last minute reversal of fortune that rings even more hollow than anything preceding it.

I think Film Threat's review says it best in the opening sentence of their review:

"Honestly, the fact that I didn’t shoot myself in the face after this movie amazes me."

For more on The Good Life:
- Movie information at IMDB
and very little at Wikipedia.

The trailer:

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