Sol Tryon’s directing debut, written by Mike O’Connell and Peter Kline, blunders into the trap of excessive strangeness by featuring not only one idiot, but an entire, carnivalesque world of them. With no one reliably normal around, the film lacks the crucial alchemy of clown and foil that all comedies demand – a voice of reason to counterbalance the shenanigans of, in this case, a pompous windbag and self-proclaimed genius named K. Roth Binew. As director, Tryon could’ve insinuated himself, the narrator, as Binew’s foil, and commented on his unfolding story through ironic choices in style, performance or editing. But Tryon is as giddy on the script’s prevailing goofiness as O’Connell and the rest, and, as a result, his film rapidly collapses in on itself.
With only a day left to live, Binew sets off on an odyssey to visit his family, friends, and enemies to invite them to his “living wake” and, in the process, clear up lifelong grievances and heartaches. He’s joined by Mills Joaquin (Jesse Eisenberg), his simpering and ingratiating servant, who chauffeurs his master across the countryside on a bicycle rickshaw. In episodic fashion, the story follows Binew as he romances his one-time, now elderly nanny during a woodsy picnic, bickers with a neighbor, a librarian, and then a clockmaker, visits a prostitute, then a psychic, and clears the air with his estranged mother and brother, and with the ghost of his father – a man whose sudden, long-ago disappearance has always traumatized him.
In terms of its twee visual design and daft central character, “The Living Wake” owes much to Wes Anderson (especially “Rushmore”) and to Terry Gilliam. In its theme of life as a circus of memories, it harks back to Fellini’s “8½.” Yet, for all its echoing of worthy precursors, Tryon’s film stumbles for lack of genuine feeling and conviction. While Binew blusters away on topics of mortality and the meaning of life from beginning to end, we never get a sense that the film takes these ideas seriously. They’re there only to provide fodder for Binew’s absurd wordplays and antics. And if they don’t matter to the film any more than that, why should they matter to us?
The performances come fast and loose, ranging from student-film terrible to the caliber of pretty good sketch comedy. Eisenberg’s work as the sidekick benefits from his ability to convey sweetness and vulnerability, but for all the actor’s charm, his character is too weak to counteract Binew’s presence. Falstaffian buffoons like Binew can be comedy dynamite, but only in the right hands, and never as the sole occupiers of the spotlight – they need to be deployed carefully as not to overwhelm everything around them and smother the audience. But Tryon, Kline, and McConnell allow Binew, their film’s resident Falstaff, to command their story’s center from scene one – comically and morally – with no one around capable of challenging it, so it’s no surprise that “The Living Wake” gets swallowed up by the black hole of Binew’s enormous personality. Credit O’Connell for turning in a bravura performance, though, recalling the old-school slapstick of Robert Benchley or Joe E. Brown. But it’s all too much and, after Binew’s sings his second song — as abrasive as his first — we get the sense that O’Connell is having all the fun, leaving the rest of us to suffer through the indulgences of this aggressively awful comedy.
Directed by: Sol Tryon
Written by: Peter Kline, Mike O’Connell
Cast: Mike O’Connell, Jesse Eisenberg, Jim Gaffigan, Ann Dowd, Clay Allen, Ami Ankin, Harlan Baker, Bryan Brown, Rebecca Cornerford, Matthew Cowles, Paul D’Amato, Jay Devlin