By Vic Holtreman
Short version: Well crafted, excellent performances, but not exactly entertaining.
For me, this is one of those rough reviews to write... where I really have to think about what my criteria is for deciding whether a movie is "great", "good", or "bad". I'll admit my reviews can be subjective - I don't just rate films based on technical quality, but on how they make me feel. They don't have to be "entertaining" (see my 5 star review of Enemies of Happiness as an example), but I like some sort of sense of positive "take-away" or satisfaction when I'm done.
Technically, is The Good Life a great film? Based on the script and the performances I would have to say yes. Overall, for the average viewer, is it great? I'd have to say no. At most I would call it a good movie.
The Good Life (very sarcastically titled) is about a 25 year guy named Jason who really just doesn't fit in with the Nebraska football-crazed town in which he lives. Yes, I know it sounds like a high school "outsider" movie and for the longest time I thought it was - because Mark Webber (who plays Jason) looked like a teenage kid to me. It wasn't until I did the math after a few lines of dialog that I figured out his age.
The film opens with our protagonist walking towards a celebratory crowd of people with a gun in his hand, the narrative describing the physical effects of shooting oneself in the mouth. Right there you can be assured that this isn't going to be the "Feel Good Movie of the Year." We are informed that we are watching the end of the film, and it immediately cuts away.
Jason (our protagonist) is a good guy with a big heart who is a victim of circumstance. Raised by a father with a sadistic streak who left the family some time back, a somewhat clueless mother (seemingly irresponsible, but not in a malicious way) who doesn't seem to have a job and is depending on Jason working two jobs to keep them afloat. Unfortunately Jason's jobs are minimum wage at best and are not enough to meet the monthly bills, including the electricity bill in the middle of winter. His father has just committed suicide, and he leaves Jason a gift which goes unopened for most of the film. We learn that at age three the family learned that his sister had a sever peanut allergy, and that for her 10th birthday (if I recall correctly) dear old dad gave her an intricately wrapped package for her birthday that contained... a jar of peanut butter. That was dads idea of a joke. Therefore Jason's trepidation at opening a parting gift from his father is quite understandable.
Jason also suffers from alopecia, a disease that causes his body to reject it's own hair which has caused him to be ostracized for many years both by others and within his own mind. Seemingly trapped in his town and nowhere life, we know that Jason did have a plan to escape at some point due to reference to his "moving fund" which he has exhausted trying to meet the monthly bills at home.
Jason also tries to take care of Gus (played by Harry Dean Stanton), who owns a local old-time movie theater. Gus lost his wife years ago but is starting to descend into Alzheimers. Jason does his best to befriend Gus, who he's known for five years by helping him to run the theater, which shows old classics. It's here that Jason meets Francis (played by Zooey Deschanel from Elf) Bill Paxton in a minor and somewhat creepy role.
Francine is somewhat mysterious and very intriguing, and through their relationship throws Jason a lifleline and brings him some brief joy. She gives him a feeling of self-worth and validates what a good person he is. Unfortunately she has her own issues that make her damaged goods, and his happiness is short-lived.
Writer/Director Stephen Berra does an admirable job of capturing the feeling of desolation that is Jason's life. The fact that he gives so much of himself and sacrifices for others, while they seemingly don't appreciate it and manage to do better than him (although not much better). I might say that Berra does too good a job of it, because after a while I almost started to feel it myself, a black hole with no way out that went on and on and on. Although it was about two hours long, it felt to me like the extended edition of Lord of the Rings.
I always believe that it is much more difficult to write real-world dialog than it is to pen what is said in an action flick, so Berra gets points for that. It was very real, and for lack of a better description, quiet or muted, fitting in with the beaten down emotions of the characters.
The acting was excellent, from everyone involved. Webber definitely captured the pathos of a beaten down person, accepting everything bad that happens up until a breaking point that must come. As in her performance in Elf, Zooey Deschanel here has an almost ethereal quality... almost as if she's not of this world. She is very compelling when she is onscreen. Bill Paxton, who usually plays a lovable guy was cheerful in a positively creepy way. Harry Dean Stanton, another outstanding performance, straddling the line between lucidity and dementia. And then there's Chris Klein (from American Pie) in a supporting role that made me somehow laugh and angry at the same time.
One scene I could have done without (and to me really seemed like non-sequiter) took place in a gay bar, with a quick shot of two guys trying to swallow each other's tounges. I really didn't need to see that and when thinking about the movie as a whole, I don't really see what the point of that scene was. Really the only reason it seemed to be in there was because it was an indie film and one must show solidarity.
Out of respect for the performances and the screenwriting, I'll give this one .
Overall this isn't for everyone, but if you're into angst-ridden movies this is probably for you.