The Good Life
Bill Paxton Mark Webber
2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Characters like Jason Prayer, the suffering protagonist in the downbeat drama "The Good Life," are designed to make us feel better about our humdrum, recession-challenged lives. Jason's dad committed suicide, a rare blood disease had made him as hairless as an unblemished cue ball, his mom's a deadbeat looking for her next sugar daddy, the electricity in their Tobacco Road hovel has been turned off, his brother-in-law's a lout, and he gets picked on by a psychotic, tire-smoking, football star wanna be. Charlie Brown looks like Diamond Jim Brady compared to this guy. Jason doesn't fit in, and the worse part of it is he knows it. To top it all off, he lives in nowheresville Nebraska, and divides his grey days working as a gas jockey and projectionist at his friend Gus' empty theater. Gus (zoned-out Harry Dean Stanton) has become his surrogate father figure - and he's losing his memory as well as his will to live. We know Gus is ready to bring down the curtain because he stares watery-eyed into space, waxes longingly about his dead wife, forgets to wear pants, and says things like "Maybe I shouldn't think that just because it's still breathing it wants to live" when he's talking about his plant.
The only activity worth experiencing in town is college football, and Jason hates sports. (It's pretty obvious that if you threw a football at this guy he'd run, fearing it might explode. And with his luck, it would.) Then Jason meets Frances, a beautiful, troubled, free spirit who calls him her "soul mate." (Zooey Deschannel plays Frances, with her luminous ice blue eyes transmitting vulnerability and her erratic actions promising trouble.) Frances has the wide-eyed come hither stare of a silent film damsel in distress and a loony twitter of the Glenda the Good Witch in her voice. There should be a DANGER WILL ROBINSON alarm going off in Jason's head the moment Frances suggests they vandalize a coke machine in order to get money to pay the electric bill. Then she admits she's lied to him not once, but twice about her past. We have a phrase for ladies like Frances, and it's not "soul mate" -- it's "unstable nutbag." When someone says they had to "take time off" and "take a lot of pills," its fourth down in your relationship and you've got no time outs left. It's a signal to end the game of love. But like all lovestruck outcasts, Jason can't get enough of Frances and the half dozen psychotic personalities that inhabit her body.
It says a lot when the best moment in "The Good Life" is cribbed from another film. When Gus is ready to punch his ticket, he turns on the projector and watches Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator." (Six degrees of separation! It so happens I'm also reviewing "Chaplin" this month.) Charlie Chaplin's lengthy soliloquy in "The Great Dictator" summarizes what "The Good Life" is supposed to be about: "I'm sorry. I don't want to be an emperor, that's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that..."
Aside from a career resuscitating performance by Harry Dean Stanton, "The Good Life" at least tries to stir the imagination by revealing the truth behind Frances' many lies and tossing out a hopeful but fully disingenuous ending that's a 360 degree turn from the otherwise morose plot. Frances' true background and the reasoning behind her inveterate lying is a worthy twist, but the gloomy to gleeful turnaround is so badly fumbled you may want to chuck a football at the TV.
The actors wade through the Swiss cheese script as if they've been given life without the hope of parole. Unknown Mark Webber has the unenviable task of playing Jason. Bereft of eyebrows, a Ken doll wig covering his bald pate, Webber looks as alien as David Bowie protégé Klaus Nomi, minus the shoulder pads. His character's story line and appearance bear a striking resemblance to the movie "Powder," a far superior woe-is-me-I'm-a-cueball movie. It's not Webber's homogenized milk looks that necessarily spoil his performance, rather its Jason's hopeless, bedraggled, put upon personality. He's a boring blank slate. Even when he falls for Frances, Jason can barely register a smile or raise his voice above a murmur. Hell, I'd be grinning like the village idiot and singing in a downpour if a woman that looked like Zooey Deschannel even glanced in my general direction.
Harry Dean Stanton had carved out a career playing brain dead codgers that resemble Hunter S. Thompson at his mescaline-induced best (or worst, depending on what drug you're on). Talk about putting the public's perception of your persona to good use --Stanton's sad, fading Gus is his best role in years.
Zooey Deschannel may sound like a perfume for animal keepers, but the doe-eyed actress has the talent to take on the damaged character of Frances. You won't care about Frances because she lies so much, but she's the closest you'll get to an effervescent and positive character - and she's suicidal. Having dated a woman who popped Lithium like Pez, (Michael Rennie's supposed niece), I have personal experience dealing with someone whose personality rises then falls precipitously like the Dragon Coaster at Playland. You might find Frances' sudden changes in mood from elated to introspective to maudlin to suicidal hard to believe. Although parts of Frances' wide-ranging personality are explained - she was a child actress, married young, then discovered her husband in bed with another man, and at one point life wounded her so badly she vowed never to sing again--there's no plausible explanation why a gorgeous, troubled woman would fall in love with an even more troubled and physically challenged boy. One moment she professes her love for Jason - then flash forward to the next morning... Frances is booking out as quickly as her Lincoln Continental limousine can hustle her out the po' side of town. Deschannel has a talent for foreshadowing Frances' inexplicable mood shifts with a vacant glance, a whispered, disconnected phrase, or a dewy-eyed stare. She has a surprisingly rich singing voice, and bravely sings "On the Sunnyside of the Street" a Capella with nary a wobble. Deschannel makes Frances hard to like but impossible to ignore, which is more than can be said for the other denizens of nowheresville.
Looking like an older version of Chet, the abusive big brother he played in "Weird Science," Bill Paxton is only in two scenes, appearing as Robbie, a movie buff enamored of old Hollywood musicals. New in town, he seeks out Gus' theater. His second appearance precedes an enlightening plot twist as he extols the historical significance of Judy Garland's "Live at Carnegie Hall" album. Jason absent-mindedly listens to Robbie praising Garland. When he realizes that Judy's life story sounds familiar, his world, already crippled by Gus' death, comes a crashing halt faster than Wyle E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner off a cliff. Gotta think Bill's only in the movie because he's the executive producer, because his impact is zero. Call him Nil Bill or Still Bill.
Versatile character actor Bruce McGill ("Animal House," "Vantage Point," "W") is given little to do as Coach Frank Jones, who spouts pigskin clichés like a corn fed Vince Lombardi as he leads his beloved team toward a championship. McGill is sampled via video clips, and his seeming significance to the script is a red herring. It's a waste of a talented actor. Ditto for "Soprano's" alum Drea De Matteo, who makes a pair of yawn-inducing stroll-ons as Jason's working class sister, Dana. Dana's saddled with a lug of a husband, conveyed with hate-inspiring gusto by Donal Logue. Logue is best known for his four-year run as the frustrated dad in the comedy "Grounded for Life." He's intense as an offensive, abusive, obscenity-spewing Neanderthal who represents the type of lunkheaded football fanatic Jason's come to loathe. Like McGill, Logue should have been given more to do. Add Patrick Fugit to the list of capable actors given short shrift. Fugit weighs in as Andrew, Jason's stoner, headphone-sporting gas station buddy. If the movie has been set in California he'd be calling everybody dude. He's confined to a few miniscule moments of pointless attempts at comic relief. If I was Patrick, I would have said fugit to the role.
Chris Klein bears the brunt of having to portray Tod Tokas, a former football star who now spends his time as an acne farm, spinning donuts, doing drugs, spewing out the rankest raps you'll ever hear, and making Jason his personal punching bag. It's a thankless, one-sided, ugly role. It doesn't take much to figure out that Tod is such a wretched waste of oxygen because he never really was the football star he claims to be, and now he's just a forgotten punk with a hot car. Klein's character is the typical small town bully caricature. There's nothing beyond his pimples and posturing that matters.
There are patches of fine acting by Harry Dean Stanton, but when an actor whose brain cells are more fried than a six piece order of Kentucky Fried Chicken gives the most noteworthy performance, then it's not The Good Life.