There are love-it-or-hate-it movies and then there's The Living Wake, an alienating experience up until the final fifteen minutes when, during the titular ceremony, it suddenly seems loveable-like an annoyingly oafish pup that won't stop nuzzling until you break down and scratch its belly. The absurdist comedy was coauthored by star Mike O'Connell, who simultaneously channels Ignatius J. Reilly of "The Confederacy of Dunces" and Harold of Harold and Maude. Some will be won over by the characters, hence the movie's cumulative charm; others won't. Being a conversation piece should juice its take a bit.
The Living Wake has been on the festival circuit since 2007. Shot in small-town Maine and set during an indeterminate era, the film boils down to a strangely moving one-man show. (That said, Jesse Eisenberg delivers one of his best performances to date as the protagonist's sidekick, Mills Joaquin.) The black-hole personality at its center-capable of sucking the life out of everything until he's extinguished and birthed a certain poignant aura-is named K. Roth Binew. A well-born, 30 year old inebriate and dandy, K. Roth's imminent death has been predicted by a doctor. The plot consists of his last day on Earth as he makes preparations for his own sending-off party.
An odious megalomaniac whose stentorian tones suggest a thespian awkwardly transitioning from silents to talkies, he's tried his hand at writing books and sundry artistic endeavors but has never been able to overcome being abandoned by his father (Jim Gaffigan) at the age of six. The love of K. Roth's life is his elderly nanny and the romantic feelings are mutual.
Part manservant, part amanuensis, Mills pedals K. Roth around on a bicycle-powered rickshaw. After a stop at the liquor store, they steal and roast a goat for a picnic with said octogenarian ex-babysitter (smooching ensues, to the chagrin of her husband). K. Roth calls on a prostitute and then a psychic, and tries to donate the books he's written to the local library. He's attacked by his brutish neighbor, finds and loses religion, belts out a song in a graveyard and tries to make amends with his estranged mother and brother.
During dream sequences brought on by alcohol, K. Roth envisions his father, who had promised to impart essential wisdom about life before he disappeared. Finally, night falls and the wake happens. At the risk of raising expectations too high, the ceremony proves miraculously satisfying, and not simply because it spells the end of the character and movie.
There's nothing more irritating than a piece that strains to be kooky and eccentric, yet one reason The Living Wake ultimately gets to you is that O'Connell is not trying too hard. K. Roth Binew is an organic creation, ticks and all. He's intelligent and verbally dexterous thanks to O'Connell and co-writer Peter Kline's script; and first-time director Sol Tryon is able to make his bizarre shtick flow. O'Connell's dogged performance is natural if not pure-bred, conjuring the philosophical pretensions of a Yankee Ingmar Bergman and the impish aestheticism of a low-budget Wes Anderson.
On the downside, the air of whimsy and forced weirdness is underscored by hackneyed devices such as hand-written title cards bearing phrases that don't enhance or structure the story. And we could definitely do without the mock newsreel about the life and times of K. Roth Binew that opens the picture. Then again, he calls attention to his own inelegant stabs at a meaningful existence when he muses, "What is life if it isn't uneasy?" or "My whole life's been awkward, why should it stop now?"
The prostitute sums things up best, telling K. Roth, "You're all right-a little strange but all right." Prepare to have your love and your hate for this unhinged outcast become a surprisingly poignant funeral pyre.
Distributor: Mangusta Productions
Cast: Mike O'Connell, Jesse Eisenberg, Jim Gaffigan, Ann Dowd, Jill Larson, Rebecca Comerford, and Colombe Jacobsen-Derstine
Director: Sol Tryon
Screenwriters: Mike O'Connell and Peter Kline
Producer: Ami Ankin
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: May 14 NY, May 21 LA