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Before the opening credits end, the movie's glum protagonist has tidied his disheveled apartment and slashed his wrists. Zia (Patrick Fugit) kills himself after breaking up with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb). But death does not bring oblivion. The ruling joke is that the afterlife is the same as the world of the living, only worse. Suicide is a form of downward mobility: The streets are shabbier, the colors less vibrant, the jobs lousier, and the people more depressed.
Thus, Zia finds himself living in a dump and working for a joint called Kamikaze Pizza. Trolling his neighborhood pick-up dive, he meets a wanly wild and crazy Russian rocker, Eugene (Shea Whigham), whose entire family has, as they say, offed themselves. An avid, if luckless, skirt chaser, Eugene hopes to enlist mopey Zia in his carousing. Zia, however, is still haunted by Desiree. Then he hears that she followed his suicide with her own and, excited by the prospect of a "Heartbreak Hotel" reconciliation, he and Eugene take to the road in Eugene's jalopy.
Roll up for the mystery tour. En route, the guys join forces with a spunky hitchhiker, Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who denies that she has in fact killed herself and insists that she's the victim of a cosmic mistake. Aren't we all? The trio then falls in with a derelict magic clown named Kneller (Tom Waits), who appears splayed out mid-highway, in search of his lost dog. Waits's affably gruff presence notwithstanding, the car radio plays nothing but tapes of Eugene's old band, which is actually the Gypsy punk ensemble Gogol Bordello. (The Russian is named for and made up to resemble Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz, even providing a suitably dispirited version of his manic mannerisms.) With Kneller in tow, minor random miracles occur: People float, fish turn colors, Eugene finds an Eskimo honey.
Sweeeeet, as a David Lynch character might say. Press notes describe the movie's "quirky universe," but you don't need a publicist to see how snugly Wristcutters' studied whimsy fits the tendency that Atlantic columnist Michael Hirschorn recently dubbed "Quirk" and unsympathetically deemed the "ruling sensibility of today's Gen-X indie culture." Hirschorn's prime exhibits were NPR's This American Life, the cancelled sitcom Arrested Development, Wes Anderson's oeuvre, and performance artist Miranda July's personasmugly post-ironic all. Such "mannered ingenuousness" is not, of course, exclusively American: Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto is arch enough to make Miranda July's teeth ache, and the post-Soviet Russian fabulist Victor Pelevin practices a form of high quirk. So does Dukic's source, best-selling Israeli writer Etgar Keret.
As befits a serious quirkist, suicide is a prominent Keret preoccupation. He's often said that he turned to writing during his military service after his best friend killed himself. Adapting Keret's 1998 novella Kneller's Happy Campers, Dukic can't be accused of shying away from or failing to appreciate its morbid theme. But he does dilute it. Although hewing closely to Keret's story, faithful even to his sense of the disgusting, Dukic is unable to rise to the author's deadpan capacity for outraging the reader or find anything comparable to his disturbingly bleak and wistful voice a Woody Allen whine with intimations of Kafka grottiness. (Born in Croatia, Dukic studied at the American Film Institute and honed this project at the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab. Perhaps that accounts for the movie's uneasy mix of gallows humor and irrational optimism.) Dukic slaps the low-quirk label "love story" on Keret's melancholy fable. Yet, rather than betrayed, Keret feels embalmed. The movie is too well crafted: The visuals are insufficiently slapdash, Keret's meandering narrative made linear and lugubrious.
And yet, certain things translate. Ponder these dejected antics long enough and the low-quirk curtain parts. Keret's metaphor for Israel comes through, as if from afarthe sense of displacement, the uncertain boundaries, the youthful alienation, the crummy beaches, the desert wandering, the military detritus, the Russian immigrants, the magic-realist kibbutz, and the enigmatic bureaucracy, not to mention the cult of the false Messiah King that figures in the final act.
Dukic sneaks a furtive reference to an Arab cab driver but not, as in the novella, a suicide bomber. And The Wizard of Oz subtext is all Dukic's. That's the movies. Or maybe it's America, the place an MGM studio head once called a "happy-ending nation."
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