Only two things are more subjective than successful comedy… one is successful indie comedy, and the other is a ranking of things that are subjective. Drama is drama regardless of the viewer’s emotional investment, and horror is horror whether or not you’re scared by what’s onscreen, but what makes you laugh probably won’t have the same effect on me. One of the most divisive comedic genres is the indie comedy which is identified by a high quirk level, eccentric characters, and a whimsical attitude completely oblivious to reality. Wes Anderson is one of the best known purveyors of quirk, and credit (and blame) for the use and misuse of these oddball characters is often laid at his feet. But Anderson at least knows to surround his eccentric leads with (somewhat) normal supporting characters to give the audience a much needed perspective and break from the twee. So what happens when you make an unconventional comedy completely devoid of ordinary, believable, and identifiable characters?
K. Roth Binew (Mike O’Connell) is a legend in his own mind. Author, artist, and thinker extraordinaire, Binew is told by a man in a white lab coat that he suffers from a heretofore undiscovered and unnamed disease with no cure. He’ll be dead in a few short days. Aided by his faithful friend/biographer/rickshaw-driver, Mills Joquin (Jesse Eisenberg), Binew sets out on his final day with a to-do list that sees him stealing and roasting a goat, reuniting with his greatest love (his elderly nanny), and attempting to re-connect with his mother and older brother. He also takes time to pass out invites to his own wake where he plans to entertain attendees with a stage show immediately followed by his death. His main goal though involves a search for two things… the “brief but powerful monologue” promised by his father (Jim Gaffigan) before the man disappeared from his life, and confirmation that his greatness will be recognized after his death.
And this is what happens when you make an unconventional comedy completely devoid of ordinary, believable, and identifiable characters.
The Living Wake as written by O’Connell and Peter Kline is a series of brief sketches in the guise of one man’s journey towards self-discovery. Binew is far from a prick, but he is a drunken lout who speaks almost every line in a loud and precise voice. Mills and just about every other side character behaves equally specific in tone or personality. They’re quirky characters in a quirky little world… we get it. Farmers carry roast beef in their pocket, Binew breaks into song in the middle of a cemetery, he has a long-standing feud with a neighbor that devolves into a drive-by involving flying meat. It’s a series of disjointed gags that have nothing to do with character or story.
The central conceit here about a man on the cusp of death who’s afraid that no one will remember him is a good one, and the right balance of laughs and heart could make it work. The problem (aside from the inconsistent comedy) is that not only is Binew someone we can never relate to but his dramatic desires are never put forth with any degree of truth. He’s a character with a capital ‘C’ through to the very end with only a brief respite from his oppressive personality well after we’ve stopped caring. If the film had involved more bits like his attempt to donate his unpublished novels to the local library we’d have a better portrait of the man and a more interesting film about fear, immortality through memory, and the elusive meaning of life. It wouldn’t even need a brief but powerful monologue.
The film isn’t completely without value though. While many of the gags fail to garner more than a slight smile, there are a few bits that warrant a guffaw or two. Gaffigan’s defense of stamp collecting is particularly brilliant, and O’Connell makes some of the goofier scenes work including the aforementioned library bit and a quick one about how Binew was the first to attribute personalities to numbers (“something thought to be stupid only years earlier”). Another sees him chastise Mills for an insult by commanding him “Biographer! Kill yourself in childhood! The victim of a mining accident!” Eisenberg gets one or two laughs too, but most of the time he’s drowned out beneath O’Connell’s verbal wake.
The viewer’s reaction to the film may very well depend on their opinion of O’Connell. He’s in every scene and his portrayal of Binew can be bombastic, grating, and broad. That persona works well in short bursts of stand-up comedy, but ninety minutes of it can be tiring when there’s no normal characters to balance him out. The quirk outweighs everything else here, and by the time the titular wake comes to what should be an emotional end we find ourselves witnessing a perfect example of the ‘too little too late’ idiom. There are a few laughs but not enough to call it a successful comedy, indie or otherwise, and the almost complete lack of heart leaves little to care about when it’s over. At least in my very subjective opinion anyway.
The Upside: Mike O’Connell; some funny bits; Maine is beautiful in autumn
The Downside: Mike O’Connell; lack of any real emotional depth; can be slow going especially the third act involving the wake
On the Side: My first exposure to Mike O’Connell was through a ‘Funny Or Die’ music video he did based on one of his own stand-up skits. It’s about how no one will let him play with their Asian baby, and it has since apparently disappeared from their website.