Posted by: gdevi | August 4, 2012

Movie Review: The Darwin Awards (2006)

Since D and K are in the UK, I usually wake up in the morning, feed the dogs, clean around the house, work in the garden or mow the yard if needed, then write all morning and into the afternoon, and then spend the entire evening watching movies streamed from Netflix while eating some nice supper with some sort of fish and avocado or swiss chard or something.  I have watched so many bad movies so far, it is unbelievable. But yesterday, I watched The Darwin Awards and I have to say I have not seen anything funnier in a long time, well, not since Office Space. I laughed so much that I would stop the movie and walk around the house for a bit because I just didn’t want the movie to end quickly.

This independent film is directed by Finn Taylor whose other directorial credits include Dream with the Fishes and Cherish, both of which I plan to see immediately.  I cherish fish. Hee hee. The plot itself is based on the real Darwin Awards, which are given annually to people who improve the human gene pool by removing themselves from it by killing themselves accidentally in the most stupid way possible. Or as their tagline puts it: “The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it.” You can read about some of these unbelievable accidents here. You can only receive the award posthumously, and there are several conditions you have to meet in order to qualify for the award.  You must not have reproduced or you must be unable to use your sexual organs for reproduction. You must die from an accident so amazingly stupid and foolish that anyone who hears it should feel puzzled that you did it rather than feel sorry for you. You must die through said accident, not intentional suicide.  You must select this incredibly foolish accident yourself–you must be the architect of this dumb plan yourself. You cannot kill others who might have made better contributions to the gene pool.  You must be sane—in other words, you cannot be mentally ill.  And finally, the whole thing must be true and you must be dead. The whole event of your incredibly foolish and stupid accident must be empirically verifiable through newspaper reports, accident coverage, insurance etc.

For instance, in 1998, a man in Canada dressed as a mummy for Halloween by binding himself from head to toe in cotton batting including his hands and fingers, and then while waiting for his girlfriend to get ready with her costume, he wanted to smoke, lit a cigarette and set himself on fire immediately with the cotton batting which is not flame-retardant, and by the time 911 and the firemen came had burned himself into 2nd and 3rd degree burns and he died in the hospital. Apparently he kept muttering, “It is my fault.” This death actually won a Darwin award.  Or the report of a man who threw his girlfriend out of a twenty-some floor window, and the girlfriend got stuck on electrical lines, which made the man jump again towards his girlfriend from the same window, which dislodged the girlfriend from the electrical lines but ended up electrocuting the man who died.  Nobody knows why he jumped towards his girlfriend on the electrical wire a second time. If it sounds gory and in bad form to find humor in this, it is; it is a form of schadenfreude. But we laugh–I don’t– at things like this everyday on Reality TV with shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos where we laugh–I don’t– at people doing all kinds of horrible things to themselves accidentally, short of death. The Darwin Awards take it to the next logical step: Death through incredibly stupid (and avoidable) accidents.

The hero is Michael Burrows, intelligent and quietly neurotic, wonderfully played by Joe Fiennes, a top-notch homicide forensic profiler for the San Francisco Police Department, who is so accurate and excellent in his job that a doctoral student is making a documentary about him and his profiling methods, following him around with a camera everywhere as he goes about his work. The movie is told in the form of this documentary, so there is much that is expository in nature. Unfortunately , Michael also suffers from hematophobia, which is fear of blood. He simply passes out at the sight of blood. This is a problem when you are a police profiler, and sure enough, one evening, he is walking home when he comes across who he is pretty sure is the serial killer terrorizing San Francisco with a string of gruesome murders. He catches the killer right there on the spot with his supreme analytical skills, and while knocking him out and calling for backup gives the killer a bloody nose, at the sight of which, Michael faints. The serial killer escapes after being caught.  These are classic scenes, an incredibly well-timed blending of physical comedy and excellent dialog. The documentary student is following him with a camera while he knocks out the serial killer but refuses to assist him when the hematophobia happens, because a documentary film-maker should stay “objective” about his “subject.” Naturally, this is bad headline and the SFPD fires him.

Depressed and dejected, no work and no money to pay the bills, Michael tries to think of a way out of his unemployed situation. He hits upon the brilliant plan to become a “profiler” for insurance companies. He will help insurance companies identify people who are likely to kill themselves through sheer stupidity so that the companies won’t have to issue such individuals policies and potentially save millions of dollars.  After he impresses one insurance executive with his extraordinary profiling skills–he can tell the color and type of the man’s underwear–Sherlock Holmes on steroids–he is provisionally accepted into the company. He will work with a “strange-claims” investigator, Siri Taylor to figure out how those strange accidents occurred. If successful, the company will hire him. Winona Ryder plays Siri; she has lost some of her characteristic pixiness,  and she looks a bit older than Joe Fiennes, but they have a nice, funny chemistry to them. She is part of some incredibly funny moments in this movie. I loved the scene when Michael and Siri drive through the desert, and Michael plays Piano Man on the car stereo.  Quiet music reduces the chances of accidents, he says. It is a great scene.

The rest of the movie is a romp through real Darwin awards accidents, and urban legends of strange and weird accidental deaths, while showing the slowly growing connection between Michael and Siri, which is really about staying safe and taking risks.  If we wish to look for what this movie is about, we could say that is what this movie is about — how do you value life? By staying safe? or by taking risks? What forces us to act?  What makes some of our acts stupid? Why are some others profound? Why don’t we all just curl up and die? This movie has a gentle philosophical side to it, very softly handled without any mumbo-jumbo, very rational and sweet. Very nice. Here are one or two of the more bizarre claims Michael and Siri investigate. As I noted earlier, since the whole movie is shot in the form of a documentary, we get to see each and every contorted step taken by these various characters in great expository detail as they try to contravene every known law of man and science, and end up dead.

Michael and Siri go to Olson, Minnesota to investigate a strange claim about a stolen truck. It is a strange claim because this is a town from where no vehicle has ever been stolen, and Siri is suspicious of the claim. Turns out, that Michael through his deductive powers–he sees some fish in the branches of trees–figures out that the owner Tom (Chris Penn’s final role) had gone ice fishing with his dog and his buddy, and was getting kind of impatient with how long it was taking them to break the ice. So he decides to throw a dynamite into the ice to break it, even though dynamiting for ice fishing is against the law. The only problem is that his dog sees the lit fuse of the dynamite which from a distance to a dog looks like a stick, so he runs towards it to “fetch” it, brings the dynamite back to his master, who runs away with his friend, and the dog runs under the brand new truck and the truck and the ice and the dog are all blown sky high and then dropped into the lake. The friend tries to rescue Tom who had fallen in the icy cold lake by giving him the handle of a shot gun to hold on to. Tom accidentally presses the gun and shoots the friend.  The claim, needless to say, is denied.

Another very bizarre story involves two young men in Eugene, Oregon, two potheads, Simon and Farley who want to attend a Metallica concert, but don’t have the money to buy the tickets. They attempt to enter the stadium by unorthodox means using a truck, a tree, a knife and a flashlight, and Simon ends up dead. Lars Ulrich and the other Metallicas visit Farley. Lars Ulrich asks Farley, “why did you do it, man?” Farley says, “We wanted to see you, you know, sex, drugs, rock n’roll, man!” Lars Ulrich says, “Sex and rock n’roll, man, no drugs.” Then looking at the kid in the wheelchair, he says, “Well, no sex too. Just stick to rock n’roll.” It is incredibly funny. Lars Ulrich is funny.

I think I might see this movie again. The dialogue is perfectly timed, the performances quiet and sweet, and it is full of controlled wit. For some reason, I kept thinking of Mel Brooks and High Anxiety the whole time I was watching this movie. The Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!!! A very enjoyable movie.


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