A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
The High Cost Of Living
The direct-to-DVD wasteland serves as a discreet burial ground for numerous failed attempts at professional reinvention. In that respect it’s like Sundance, a generous realm where sitcom actors can channel their inner auteur or get all Cassavetes with the shouting and the emoting and such. If you’re Zach Braff—the unquestioned voice and sad face of the Zach Braff Generation—you can grow some stubble, refrain from showering for a brief idyll, and pretend your sacrifices make you Edward Norton in The 25th Hour instead of a lightweight out of his depth.
In a performance destined not to shake up his image, Braff stars in the sleepy independent drama The High Cost Of Living as a directionless American man eking out a living selling prescription pills in Montreal. Braff is a man without roots whose life changes when he strikes a pregnant woman (Isabelle Blais) with his car in a hit-and-run accident. Blais loses the baby but strikes up an unlikely friendship with Braff after he seeks her out under false pretenses. Then again, in circle-of-pain narratives like this, unlikely friendships happen all the time: Friendships are eminently more likely to develop between, say, a depressed little person and a widower afraid of heights than, say, two co-workers with common interests and complementary personalities. Braff’s mopey charm helps rouse Blais from a pervasive funk, but can their friendship survive the weight of what’s unsaid?
The High Cost Of Living wants to be a sober exploration of fate, guilt, and shame, but the screenplay keeps pushing it into the realm of the cutesy Zach Braff romantic comedy. So Braff and his unlikely new friend try on crazy hats, then promenade in public and bond over a game of drunken blindfolded hopscotch. Portentous and dull, The High Cost Of Living is an alternately dour and histrionic mope-fest stricken with an incongruous and deeply annoying attack of the cutes. Despite his permanent five o’clock stubble and dead eyes, Braff simply cannot shake his innate adorability. It turns out you can take the boy out of the sitcom/rom-com world but you can’t take the sitcom/rom-com world out of the boy.
How Bad Is It: It’s not good.
Son Of Morning
The wacky new comedy Son Of Morning belongs unmistakably to the Putney Swope school of free-flowing, free-swinging social satires. That style of ragingly idiosyncratic comedy flourished, after a fashion, in mostly empty art-house theaters throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, but is mostly relegated to Sundance and direct-to-DVD burials these days. Reduced to its broad outlines, Son Of Morning sounds incredibly ambitious, a ramshackle comedy about an affectless young man who is posited as the new messiah after he’s seen bleeding from the eyes. The film is ambitious, albeit in a casual, smartass sort of way: It’s a featherweight trifle about some of life’s biggest questions.
In an appealingly, deliberately vacant lead performance, Joseph Cross stars as a junior copywriter whose drab existence is turned upside down when he begins bleeding in church, and a cynical, opportunistic reporter (Heather Graham) decides to spin an unfortunate pharmaceutical side effect as a religious miracle and Cross as the new messiah. Cross’ life changes overnight. He’s jettisoned from the house he shares with sad mom Lorraine Bracco (whose husband—Cross’ father—commits suicide early on) to a fancy hotel where Englishman Edward Herrmann attends to his every need. In Son Of Morning, the sun is dying and mankind’s days are numbered, so people need hope and a messiah more than ever. Cross looks to provide them with both.
Son Of Morning has great fun at the expense of a celebrity industry that elevates unknowns to great heights, chews them up and then deposits them in the trash, preferably over the space of a day or, at most, a week. Many of the film’s satirical subjects are familiar, but an ace supporting cast (that includes Bob Odenkirk, Danny Glover, Stephen Root, and Jon Polito) breathes new life into some crusty old stereotypes. Jesse Bradford—who I will always love for his lead performance in Steven Soderbergh’s King Of The Hill—is very funny as a sleekly predatorial agent whose smugness registers as spiritual certainty. And it’s hard to dislike a film with a Claymation sequence involving Cross and a giant talking gerbil flying high in a helicopter above a fantastical wonderland.
Son Of Morning has a lot of goofball, smartass charm, but even with a running time that just barely passes the 70-minute mark, it still feels padded and inconsequential. It’s breezy fun as long as Cross’ star is on the ascendant, but it loses momentum once Cross is found out as a fraud. Cross’ would-be messiah, it seems, is not the only one who can’t quite figure out what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.
Just How Bad Is It? It’s pretty good until major third-act problems.
For the past six years, the universe has been telling Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson to stop making movies. For six years, Jackson has refused to take a hint. 50 doesn’t just have a problem with choosing roles—he has a bad movie addiction. It’s a pathology. He can’t help himself. He simply must make terrible direct-to-DVD action thrillers. It’s a compulsion.
50 can’t help himself, but what’s Bruce Willis’ excuse? Why would an actor of Willis’ bulletproof popularity want to associate himself professionally with the man who seized Master P’s vacated throne as the king of pointless direct-to-video rapsploitation? My guess: Willis had a three-hour layover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the movie was filmed, and figured he might as well make the most of it. That or one of his grandchildren told him 50 was cool five years ago, and for some reason that piece of information stuck with him.
In Setup, 50’s latest affront to the action genre, the rapper-turned-actor stars as a career criminal who is betrayed by Ryan Phillipe during a heist and loses his best friend in the process. 50 goes bucking for revenge, but first must deal with a powerful mobster played by Willis. Here, as elsewhere, 50 infects the rest of the cast with his Dutch Elm disease. It’s almost remarkable how wooden he is at this point in his career; it’s as if he’s working diligently not to improve his craft. He’s like a cinematic Medusa: Everything he touches turns to stone.
The only exception is Willis, who has a nice little monologue where he bemoans the impact the death of the American newspaper will have on his favorite morning ritual: reading the box scores of last night’s game over a bowl of Corn Flakes and a cup of coffee. It simply won’t be the same with an iPhone. The scene succinctly captures the Zen of Bruce Willis: He’s just a guy enjoying himself. That’s the essence of the character and of Willis’ persona. Let lesser souls waste their time and energy with furious exertion and complicated motivations. Willis just shows up, says his lines, then gets a massage. For Willis, life is as simple as Setup is unnecessarily convoluted.
Just How Bad Is It: Even by the standards of a direct-to-DVD 50 Cent movie, it’s pretty goddamn bad.