This is one for hard core indie lovers: break out the picnic jackets and ensure all comments to this review are done on an apple product. Ironically this dark comedy’s original release year of 2007 offers plenty of opportunity to say “I liked it before it came out…”, but thanks to Axiom films bringing the film to the UK we all get to be most unhip.
Doomed to die within hours due to a ‘yet to be named, grave, brain disease’, self-proclaimed genius K. Roth Binew intends to make good his life’s ambitions, aided by his loyal, best and only friend Mills Joaquin (Jessie Eisenberg). One of these goals includes acquiring the meaning of life, hidden within “a brief, but powerful monologue” possessed by his equally eccentric father (Jim Gaffigan). Riding around town on a dinky bicycle-powered rickshaw, he invites friends, family and foes alike to his ‘living wake’, where they will witness his final moments and death.
If you want a lesson on how to exaggerate everything in your life, then you could do worse than heed our eloquently named main character. An artist without a single piece of work in the public domain, he spouts the words and wishes of a man whose legacy is imagined. In essence that’s the joke of the film, but also, in particular regard to the punctuality (and mere existence) of his terminal disease, the big mystery. Is he insane? Is he a genius? Is he actually dying? It’s a smart script for sure, but the main thing that will get under the skin of most movie goers is whether it’s too smart to be enjoyed.
Whilst the story can be a bit too bizarre, the laughs are plentiful, and not always uncomfortable. Whether it’s the pair stealing a goat so it can be sacrificed to the Greek Gods, arguing for a discount at a funeral home given the pre-deadness of the corpse or literally buying time, the gags do well on their own, but act as ample settings for many one liners.
In his first starring role, and writing job, comedian Mike O’Connell is just a joy to watch, as he accents every line with passion and bravado. Binew is a very unique character; every facet the wishful thinking of a bygone era. He’s also a quote machine, some favoured examples include:
“Reginald! I’m going away today, and I would like to invite you to my going away party!”
“Librarian, we only have time for a brief ceremony, so please smile continuously.”
“And never have rickets been more erotic…”
And these get better with context. You may find him annoying to start with, but during the film’s titular living wake (which includes one of the film’s two song and dance numbers) you’ll warm to K. Roth Binew.
Jessie Eisenburg continues to frustrate me. Not long after I hear he was nominated for an academy award in The Social Network, I find he’s starring in a horror movie so bad it shall not be named. His part was actually a cameo, and this film similarly banks on his fame by putting his face prominently on the poster, despite the fact he’s second billed. His performance meanwhile is quite understated next to the loud booming lead. Whilst the character is as timid as he is loyal, it’s very noticeable and somewhat mars the believability of the role, although his heartfelt, long built up eulogy at the end is heartbreaking. Likewise Jim Gaffigan gets short changed. One of my favourite stand ups, he’s too often put in minor roles where he steals the show, and so whilst I deride his minimal usage, I savour every second as well.
Ultimately The Living Wake pines too hard for its niche audience to reach cult classic status. It is, on a simplistic scale, funny, original and, in its climax, extremely moving and thought provoking. The majority of it seems like filler and it banks heavily on a bombastic performance, but it’s a solidly directed and scripted piece of work that, at the very least, stands out.
Words > Graham Ashton