Movie Title: The Living Wake (2007/2010, limited release)
Mike O'Connell, Jim Gaffigan, and Jesse Eisenberg star in The Living Wake, a dark but daring comedy that focuses on the life and last day of one self-proclaimed genius, K. Roth Binew (O'Connell) and his “best friend, authorized biographer, and poet extraordinaire,” Mills (Eisenberg). Comedian Jim Gaffigan is Lampert Binew, Binew's late father.
Whether it repels or attracts them, it is the complex personality of K. Roth Binew that will amaze viewers with his didactically delusional and dynamic determination to leave his mark on history through his works of art and literature. Having been on his quest since early childhood, he is now more desperate than ever once he finds that he has only a few hours left to live due to an unknown (but somehow still known to be punctually fatal) condition.
Binew is seeking “a brief, but powerful monologue” of which his revered father spoke when he was a child. His life's quest ever since has been to uncover this sacred-but-alluding message. A great love for alcohol, erotic feelings for the nanny who once saved his life, and parents who are ashamed of him cannot deter him from this lifelong journey.
Binew waits till the day of his death to go looking at coffins. He travels around, pulled in a rickshaw by Mills, to see his estranged parents and face down his esteemed enemy neighbor, Reginald (Eddie Pepitone), but he won't stop until his books are available for all to read in the public library. In the meantime, he will sacrifice a goat to the gods on Mt. Olympus and eat of its flesh.
Mr. Binew will use his last day of life to make his mark and be appreciated as an artist and writer in a living wake, for which invitations are distributed. His awkward verbosity, eternal optimism, together with his grim circumstance, are enough to create frustration in the mind of any critic with the fact that there's simply nothing out there to compare this film to (this film will not receive a standard grade). It is – if anything – a rare bird, some would say an instant classic.
There is an appealing musical number midway through, but it is the non-verbal moments of the film that allow the viewer the chance to begin appreciating the message in the very brief epochs of silence and stillness that are.
While some artfully-minded critics would call The Living Wake an unusual, if not altogether unique, kind of comedy that establishes its own brand, others will have grounds to call out the lack of structure in this speeding bullet of a production, with its sadly unshackled attempts at humor. As always, the question to be answered in such cases is, do the film's artistically fortified strengths outweigh its weaknesses? This reviewer says no...and yes. To date, it is the only film I have ever reviewed that is worthy of an F and an A at the same time.
The film is superbly crafted and there is overacting on the part of only one particular cast member, though the work could be called hammy even by British sitcom standards—stepping one foot past that line drawn in the sand between musically enhanced, show tune parody and artsy masturbatory gawkiness that does nothing but tickle the fancy of its writers. The established truth: not everything done in the name of art is praiseworthy. In this case, you must decide the film’s value, but I expect only a select few will garner anything from it.
The Living Wake's popularity is increasing, but this will not be a big plug for Eisenberg (Zombieland, 2009) whom we've seen go further with roles on screen recently. He is a deer in the headlights half of the time and little more than a chauffeur right up until the end. There, his role as a silent contrast to Binew begins to be appreciated.
Mike O'Connell's performance is sensational. O'Connell (The Black Dahlia, 2006, Funny People, 2009) is not just the actor who plays Binew, but co-writer with Peter Kline and has seen the project through since its inception. This says much about the driving force behind his performance in character. The Living Wake will prove to be a love-it-or-hate-it film, some hating it for its unapologetic and unexplained incoherence, or else loving it because it is a creatively inspired look at the meaning of human accomplishment.
The Living Wake doesn't evoke very much emotion until later on. If at all, only then can you begin to appreciate what has been watched. The best part is its ending—not because it is a failure (which it has not been established that it is), but because you know that what you have seen does not quickly escape you, but becomes more meaningful the longer it is contemplated. In that light, the crazy character of Binew becomes...if such can be said...an inspiration to all who face death having never achieved their goals.
The only constant fascination throughout, next to the beautiful autumn Maine scenery, is the audacity of the entire project, with its qualities of an articulate Benny Hill skit – dabbling in risqué, but at times simply hilarious happenings – sidelined by sloppy surrealism. If you can wade through it, there are nuggets of comedic treasure to be found.
The Living Wake has every quality of the most spirited Broadway play—less so a movie, but closer in style and content to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The Living Wake is a no-go for more than half of the viewers in a mainline audience. This rare and beautiful bird of song will have few handlers.
Grade: No grade
Rated: No MPAA rating
Director: Sol Tryon
Summary: “The Living Wake” is a dark comedy that chronicles the final day in the life of a self-proclaimed artist and genius.
Starring: Mike O'Connell "K. Roth Binew," Jesse Eisenberg "Mills," Jim Gaffigan "Lampert Binew," Ann Dowd "Librarian," Eddie Pepitone "Reginald"