Monday, August 9, 2010

A Frank Review of "Dead Like Me: Life After Death" (2009)

The Short Version? Domestic Reapers.
What Is It? Dramedy.
Who Is In It? The series regulars, minus Rube and Daisy, and including Zod Jr., Whitley Gilbert, Hope Davidson
Should I See It? No.

I was turned on to Dead Like Me after the demise of the television series through a friend's DVD set. The short version is that chosen members of the recently deceased would return to something closely approximating life to serve as grim reapers. These individuals were charged with collecting the souls of those who died extremely, shortly before the big splat, and lead them to the afterlife. In their downtime, the reapers also had to maintain new living identities in the mundane world, operating inconspicuously and without contact with people from their past lives.

I liked the show enough to buy my own on sale, and just finished a nightly viewing of each episode over the past month, my second look at each. I also happened upon a used copy of the direct-to-DVD follow-up over the course of the marathon, and looked forward to finally catching that. I was put out by the absence of a few preferred cast members, but I'm not some devotee that would call that a deal breaker. It was a fun show that suited my sense of humor, but never essential.

Few revivals can ever capture the "magic" of the original, but there was only a three year gap between the cancellation of Dead Like Me and the initial production of this feature. Ideally, especially with a cult favorite, the creators would hew as closely as possible to the original, which in this case had a very distinctive visual and writing style. When the credits begin, and there's a new logo that would be at home on a Spooky Sounds of Halloween cassette tape. Then a faux Dead Like Me comic book materializes to relate the basics of the show, the only appropriate response bears the initials "W.T.F." It isn't even a good comic book-- just badly colored storyboards and the dreaded Comic Sans font. The natural assumption would be that the production budget must have been pretty skimpy, and that they maybe didn't have the rights to use footage from the television show to flash back to. However, in the commentary track, the director reveals that this was instead a way for him to place his own stamp on the show. His stamp reads "Clueless Asshole," and it'll cover this movie before he's done.

One of the series' gimmicks was to keep its reapers guessing as the exact identity of the soon-to-be departed, and to kill the unfortunate in a roundabout Rube Goldbergian manner. In this movie, there's only one brief scene where a reap's target is in question, and the flick opens with a scientist committing suicide through an entirely too literal Goldbergian contraption-- complete with an unironic last minute call rewarding his inventiveness that he's unable to take. The specific group of reapers the series followed specialized in violent deaths, but to the exclusion of suicides. In this instance, the divergence from the norm is explained, but the movie sets itself early on to the task of breaking as many of the series' rules as possible, succeeding in ruining a lot of what was good there while opening up a big can of worms that are left squirming about at the curtain call.

Comedy is timing. You can say something poorly thought out, or plain nonsensical, and get laughs-- if you do it quickly enough in the right moment. Wait five seconds to polish the joke, and the thought becomes a bomb or a non-sequitur. The timing throughout the movie is way off. Where the show's afterlife was represented by brief flashes of blue light that sometimes vaguely represented something, the movie offers saggy moments of the dead being applauded by auditorium crowds and-- wait, it's always cheering crowds here. What a rip!

Another major problem is found in the sets. Der Waffle Haus is burned to the ground off-screen, which symbolizes the strip mining of the show itself. Rube, the guiding light of the series, is pronounced dead, while Kiffany and Casey never appear. The new Daisy actress is introduced, and is so clearly not Laura Harris (or even reflecting the right fashion of the character, with her staid '50s ensemble,) you're immediately aware something is off. The cast is then whisked away by limo to a dimly lit high class restaurant, where they're presented with Palm Treo smartphones in place of Post-Its by some Eurotrash Brit that's the new boss. Meanwhile, the Lass home must have finally been sold, which might help explain George's seeming detachment from her remaining family in town. The most egregious change is to Happy Time, the sterile, florescent lit cubicle hell George worked at. In the interim, the piss-ant temping agency has become a stunning corporate office with byzantine architecture involving glass and orange-red natural lighting everywhere. It looks like heaven as imagined by Renny Harlin, and is so far removed from the aesthetic and purpose of its existence in the series that its appearance is to the detriment of the proceedings. Crystal shows up just to show up, though.

Sarah Wynter replaces Laura Harris as Daisy Adair due to a last minute scheduling conflict with Harris' TV show Women's Murder Club. Great pains are taken in commentaries to connect the two actresses, who played terrorist sisters in the second season of 24, but that's a show known for its implausibility. Harris is a stunning alabaster beauty, and Wynter is a rubber chicken that should have Wayland Flowers working her from behind. Daisy Adair was the most complex character on the show, with Harris navigating positively schizophrenic writing with grace. Wynter's career highlights involve showing her tits in a Species sequel and a lesser Schwarzenegger flick, her comedic timing is shit, and her performance is flat as a board.

One casting divergence from the series that actually works is Jennifer Rae Westley as Millie Hagen, George's living alter ego. In the earlier episodes, the actress portraying how the living world saw George, put indelicately, looked like a heroin addict on the down side of life. As the series progressed, George saw romantic attention from some fairly hot guys that would be out of that chick's league, where Westley is actually hotter than George, so that turn makes sense.

Inevitably, you have to cast about for blame. The veteran actors had varying degrees of trouble with finding their characters. Cynthia Stevenson and Britt McKillip fared the best there, as they were shielded from the mess of the reaper world, and could focus on their mother-daughter relationship. Both characters had matured and progressed in mostly believable ways, and were able to sell some clunky dialogue. Ellen Muth carried a similar trajectory, but because of her presence in the reaper entanglements, she is forced to carry out actions that don't fit even an older, wiser George. Callum Blue was on auto-pilot as Mason, while Jasmine Guy couldn't quite overcome the contrivances forced on her character. Christine Willes is still Delores Herbig, but seemingly sadder and more defeated by age.

I expect the actors all had confidence in their writers, veterans of most series episodes, which is one area where the movie goes astray. Every reaper except George is given short shrift, devolved to their most base character attributes and painfully manipulated to suit the needs of a coolly constructed story. Without the grounding presence of Mandy Patinkin as Rube, their amusing infantile tangents are never met by an opposing force, killing the humor for lack of tension. Roxy's failure to step up in Rube's absence sends the lot flying out of their usual orbit and into trouble, with repercussions that are never adequately explained. The new boss, Cameron Kane, is initially portrayed as a make-it-or-break-it shark who sacrifices humanity for efficiency. However, the organization immediately breaks down due to the incompetence and/or callousness of his oversight, which begs the question of why he was given a position of authority in the first place. Whether he was an active agent of evil or simply disinterested in his duties are never elaborated upon, and the seduction of the reapers is so easily initiated that everyone in the affair comes off as lacking sophistication. My best guess is that the series' strengths lay in lacing boring normal life with divine undercurrents, where the movie's script has fantastic aspirations beyond the writers' comfort zone.

Ultimately, the head to call for is director Stephen Herek, whose feeling the need to impose his style on the production spoils the soup. Constant use of slow motion. A desire to unnecessarily elevate the production values from the show, conversely making the movie look cheap. A fixation on expanding the scale of the premise without laying down a proper structure to support it. Soap operatic turns, saccharine melodrama, and incongruous sexual escapades. Awful attempts at broad comedy and third hand gallows humor that never should have escaped the cutting room. An attempt to pull a Shyamalan by sticking clocks in every scene. Fucking bullet time. Thanks to a moronic director, much of the flavor of the show is lost, and this debacle will only sully the memory of a pretty swell show that seems to have lived just long enough, and then a bit too much.


  • Audio Commentary by Director Stephen Herek and Actress Ellen Muth Muth relates the story of filming her death scene from the series shortly after 9/11, sending bystanders dialing 9-1-1. There's some other anecdotal crap like that, but mostly it's just pretension and delusion.
  • Back From The Dead: Resurrecting Dead Like Me Featurette You know the usual interview bullshit on these things? That.

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