06 February 2008

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

First things first. Last things first, actually. The end credits for Over Her Dead Body do not begin in the ordinary way: the very first words scrolling up after the final fade to black are "A Film By," and this is followed not by the director's name, as is customary, but by the cast list. Then, when "A Film By" reaches the top of the screen...it stays there. And for the entirety of the closing credits, listing every man and woman who assistant edited or unit production managed or visual effects composited in the film, "A Film By" hovers over all.

It's an unusual and generous reminder of something that we all like to say and very often forget: films are never the work of a single creator (unless that creator is Stan Brakhage or one of a few animators), but are instead the work of a whole collaborative team of artists and craftspeople with individually vital contributions. I have never seen anything like this - not in a Hollywood studio release, not in an indie movie, not in a student film. Such humility should not go unnoticed, and it gets the film an extra point, which means that you'll find at the end that I've given Over Her Dead Body a 7/10 rating. If that's going to blow your mind and leave you in doubt of my sanity, then you can consider yourself warned.

Now, down to business.

I've had romantic comedies on the brain quite a lot in the past few days. First, for the practical reason that it's February, the year's big month for romcoms; second, the review I wrote of 27 Dresses on the 2nd, one of those thought pieces I sometimes write when I'm confronted with a dull and anonymous movie, and which nobody reads because it's about a dull and anonymous film; third, A.O. Scott's own thought piece on romantic comedies, published in the New York Times on the 3rd.

It's probably not obvious from the things I've written on this blog, but historically, the romantic comedy is my favorite of all cinematic genres. His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve are all desert island films of mine, and every one meets all the rules that govern the genre even today: the leads meet cute, the obstacles that get in their way are preposterously contrived, the audience never doubts for even one moment that they're going to get together when all is said and done, and the dialogue mostly sounds like people trying to out-aphorism each other.

These films are all consensus masterpieces, while their modern descendants are all, by the same consensus, among the worst films contemporary Hollywood has to offer. Why? The rote predictability of romcoms is usually called their greatest flaw, but this can't be it: from the moment Barbara Stanwyck sums up Henry Fonda with the line "I need him like the axe needs the turkey," no sensible mind can have any doubt how The Lady Eve is going to conclude. It's too tempting to say that it's just the quality of our actors versus the stars of the Golden Age. If I were of a sociological bent, I would suggest that the rise of feminism led to a crisis in the male-dominated arts, and the once-strong female leads of romantic comedies were replaced the personality-deficient ditzes who so blight the genre today.

But the fact is, I don't have answers, just questions. I bring this all up because Over Her Dead Body is not half bad, and in its best moments, whether a nimble concept, or a particularly deft line-reading (and every actor in the film has at least a couple of really good line-readings: even Eva Longoria. Even Jason Biggs!), the film rises far enough above the extremely low median of the state of the genre to suggest the good old days. Not enough to make it a film for the ages, but sometimes it seems like the movie could just about grasp the lowest branches of a truly great romantic comedy if it stretched just a tiny bit farther.

The film is pure high-concept pablum: Kate (Longoria) is killed when an ice angel falls on her the morning before her wedding to Henry (Paul Rudd). One year later (in August, 2008 - making Over Her Dead Body a science fiction movie!) Henry's sister Chloe (Lindsay Sloane) talks him into seeing a psychic, with the hopes that Kate's spirit will reach out from beyond the grave to tell Henry that it's time to move on. The psychic they pick is Ashley (Lake Bell), who can't read anything - but when Chloe steals Kate's diary, the two women agree to a theoretically harmless little fraud wherein Ashley will use the book to convince Henry that she really is in contact with his dead fiancée. Except, whoops! it turns out that Ashley and Henry fall a little bit in love. And, whoops! then Kate actually shows up in ghostly form, and she is pissed as a newt at Ashley.

Meanwhile, Jason Biggs plays Ashley's gay friend and catering assistant, in one of those "good lord, we need more wacky!" sort of developments that feels like they just stuck the executive notes right into the shooting script.

As written and directed by Jeff Lowell, a sitcom veteran, this is all very genial and vanilla, and there's nothing to get particularly upset about. About 75% of it, I'd wager, is perfectly bland and forgettable - the heroine spills food all over herself, the zany gay sidekick is zany and gay (the way they exposition his gayness is one of the most awkward lines I have heard in a movie in my whole life. Seriously), the veterinarian hero interacts with animal owners in goofy ways. But that last quarter...now, most of it isn't high art. I don't want to claim otherwise. But there are places where everything just clicks. Sometimes, it's an unexpected call-back in the dialogue. Sometimes, it's an actor hitting every word in a line just exactly right, with the perfect look on his or her face (unsurprisingly, Rudd gets the most of these. And while we can all agree that it would be nice for Rudd to not make movies like this, it's not like they've forced him to stop returning David Wain's phone calls). There are some flat-out great moments in a largely mediocre film, which is enough to shoot it to the very top of its class - it is midwinter, after all, and we are talking about a filmmaking mentality that has seen fit to pair Matthew McConaughey with Kate Hudson twice.

The big thing, I think, is that the characters aren't all as grimly retrograde as they typically are in these kinds of films. Longoria's Kate is a straight-up stereotype, but Lake Bell's Ashley isn't quite the moron that most romcom female leads tend to be: the mustard scene in the trailer is her absolute nadir and the only "ditzy idiot" moment she has in the whole film. And she seems driven by things that aren't finding true love at all possible costs, although this tends to be less so as the film progresses.

Is it possible that I liked the film so much because I'd seen 27 Dresses not even one week prior. Nay, it is probable. But that's the way these things are. It did more than the minimum, and while I hate to say that's worthy of notice, it really kind of is.

7/10 (No tears - I told you why)

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