The worst punishment for suicide isn’t hell—it’s ending up in a world that’s only a slightly more miserable version of this one. That’s the wry joke of Wristcutters: A Love Story, a film that’s not as unbearably quirky as its Sundance Screenwriters Lab pedigree may suggest. The real problem is that once you get past its initial idea—adapted from Etgar Keret’s 1998 novella Kneller’s Happy Campers—it’s not too much of anything. It’s certainly melancholic, occasionally funny, and ultimately life-affirming. But overall, it feels as if writer-director Goran Dukic dropped a rather promising ball.
Wristcutters: A Love Story begins with the end of one. After a breakup, Zia (Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit, who’s grown into Jeff Tweedy), puts Tom Waits’ “Dead and Lovely” on his record player, cleans up his mess of a room, and slits his wrists. Then he’s in the next world, where instead of spending eternity in damnation or bliss or a void, he’s working a crappy job at Kamikaze Pizza and living with a mouth-breathing roommate. He hangs out at a gloomy dive bar and makes friends with a gloomy Russian musician, Eugene (Shea Whigham) and still pines for Desiree (Leslie Bibb). So when Zia discovers that Desiree killed herself, too, he forces Eugene to ditch his family—in one of the plot’s more amusing details, Eugene’s relatives all eventually offed themselves and now happily live together—and join him on a road trip to find her. On their way they pick up a hitchhiker, Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who’s looking for the “people in charge” (though no one is certain such authority exists), because she claims she’s there by mistake (which Zia and Eugene also don’t believe).
The landscape of this afterlife is pretty bleak, a cross between rural nothingness and war zone, where you’re not allowed to smile. It also loses points, according to Mikal, because “it’s hot as balls” and “everybody’s an asshole.” Despite her complaining, though, Mikal’s a suicide girl who looks like a Suicide Girl, so her company instantly brightens the boys’ trip, whereas before they had only the weird, gypsylike music of Eugene’s old band to entertain them. It’s actually the music of Gogol Bordello, which underscores a trippy connection: Between Eugene’s accent and Zia’s hipster-nerdiness, the film fiercely recalls the 2005 Elijah Wood picaresque tale Everything Is Illuminated. Which starred Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz, after whom Wristcutters’ character, Eugene, is modeled. Circle of life—or, in this case, art—dude.
There’s a bit of magical realism in Wristcutters, predominantly in the form of a “black hole” on the passenger side of Eugene’s car that swallows anything that’s dropped into it like an ink-filled toilet bowl. But the quirk factor gets amped up once the kids meet Kneller (an appropriately eccentric Tom Waits) and stay at his camp. They learn they have odd powers, like the ability to float or change the color of something, but they can only do it “if it doesn’t matter.” (If this is supposed to be some sort of message—and I have my doubts—it’s a much more obscure one than, say, the moment Zia and Eugene don literally rose-colored glasses.) And a neighboring cult—er, camp—holds a gathering whose central event is supposed to be some fantastic miracle featuring King (Will Arnett, whose appearance is giddily surprising in this strenuously indie production). This to-do after a long period of nothing sparks a development that’s not terribly clear, but at this point, the film’s nearly over anyway.
Wristcutters’ most endearing point is that its realm isn’t filled with Hemingways or Hunters but believable sad sacks who bond easily because of their fatal choices. Fugit and Sossamon are especially well-cast: They’re the overthinking walking wounded who could laugh at life’s absurdities until they couldn’t anymore—and then had no choice but to take that attitude again post-suicide, which keeps the film from overflowing with woe. The humor stays lightly morbid (there’s a flashback of a 10-year-old wanting to hang himself after a soccer loss) or just light (we meet a cop whose uniform is a white T-shirt and clip-on tie). But the film’s front-loaded, and though it’s at times a pleasant enough meander, it ultimately feels unwisely stretched. The abridged version: Don’t jump. Life could be worse.
Martian Child Directed by Menno Meyjes
Get over the kid’s voice. That’s one key to enjoying Martian Child, an apparent glucose-spiker about a misfit kid and the neurotic widower who adopts him. Like Wristcutters, the film has literary origins, though the screenwriters made a rather significant change: The source novel’s author, David Gerrold, and its main character are single gay men. But widowers are cuddlier, I guess, and don’t risk offending ticketbuyers. A grieving man opening his heart to a child? Aww. A gay man wanting to become a parent? Not in my multiplex.
As it stands, however, Martian Child manages to be rather touching. John Cusack, the most adorable of neurotics, plays David, a science-fiction writer who began the adoption process before his wife’s death. Two years later, the agency has a boy for him, but David’s misgivings about whether he can handle a child by himself are compounded when he meets Dennis (Bobby Coleman). Dennis thinks he’s from Mars, and since that planet is much farther from the sun than Earth, he spends his time in a box—from Amazon, marked fragile, no less—to protect himself from solar rays. Dennis also wears a weight belt, lest he float right back into space. David also used to pretend he was an alien when he was a kid, so naturally, he’s compelled to reach out to Dennis and try to get him, literally, out of his shell.
The setup’s a little obvious, and director Menno Meyjes doesn’t do his film any favors by having Dennis speak in a grating cracked whisper—just in case you missed the rest of the reminders of his otherness, such as his sunscreen-slathered, Marilyn Manson complexion, weird haircut, and enthusiasm for taking Polaroids to document his “mission.” There’s also a nonsensical conflict that involves the adoption agency threatening to take Dennis out of David’s well-appointed home just because Dad isn’t turning to therapists and Ritalin for help.
But the things Martian Child gets right are strong enough to save it. The humor comes courtesy of the typical Cusack sarcasm. John’s is slightly toned down (though he’s still far from Must Love Dogs territory). His sister, Joan, stars as David’s sister, Liz, who as a mother gives him insights such as, “The thing about kids is that they keep coming at you. Like mosquitoes.” The story’s central idea, however overplayed, is the gut-grabber, though. Only former cheerleaders and quarterbacks won’t bristle when another girl calls Dennis a “weirdo.” But while David’s sympathy for Dennis’ social issues and fondness of his offbeat personality is obviously warming—even Amanda Peet, as David’s sorta love interest, supplies a nice moment when her character marvels that Dennis “is like a little Andy Warhol”—he also eases him into the idea that sometimes fitting in is OK, too. Consider these relatively surprising doses of reality the film’s own weight belt.