Wes Anderson has much to answer for. Nothing is more deadly than curdled whimsy, and Anderson’s cultishly revered oeuvre has inspired more than its share of mirth gone awry, like Sol Tryon’s oppressively twee dark comedy The Living Wake. As if the prospect of a foppish dandy calling a liquor-store proprietor “liquorsmith” and talking like the bastard child of The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns and A Confederacy Of Dunces’ Ignatius J. Reilly doesn’t sound insufferable enough, there’s the film’s long, hard slog through a world of precious literary conceits, like the protagonist’s need to hear a “short, powerful monologue” from his absent father (Jim Gaffigan) before passing.
The Living Wake’s theatrical release seems attributable largely, if not exclusively, to the unexpected stardom of costar Jesse Eisenberg, who more or less fades into the background playing the biographer, rickshaw driver, and all-around sidekick of the title character (Mike O’Connell, who also co-scripted), an early-20th-century man in a 21st-century world. O’Connell becomes convinced that he will perish of a vague disease before the end of the day, so he sets about fulfilling some of his dearest fantasies. He makes out with an old woman who once toiled as his beloved nanny (much to the irritation of her equally geriatric, much-less-indulgent husband), frolics with a prostitute, tries to donate his books to the library, and subjects everyone in his life to a pretentious climactic theatrical presentation.
It’s hard to write about The Living Wake without making it seem far better than it is. O’Connell and Peter Kline’s script is full of clever ideas and goofball surrealism, but the presentation is so airless that it drains the life out of the film. The Living Wake is cursed with a permanent smirk of smug self-satisfaction: It’s so delighted with itself that it leaves audiences out of the equation.