If you can get over its affected and mildly offensive irreverence — check the cheeky title — you might just enjoy “Wristcutters: A Love Story.” Sure, its high-concept setup, as adapted by first-time feature film helmer Goran Dukic, subversively suggests that suicide is just another way to meet cute. But taken for what it is–a romantic comedy road trip aspiring merely to fulfill its generic dictates — “Wristcutters” mostly succeeds with its cleverly posthumous scenario. The bright, evenly lit palette of the traditional romantic comedy colors only the world of the living, while the afterlife plays out in bluish-grey hues, with which the Croatian-born director evokes European winter, the flames of hell muted into a dusty, “hot as balls” desert environment. Everything and everyone exhibits a sickly pallor, washed-out as if the underworld were kept warm beneath a perpetual, unflattering fluorescent light. The condemned go around in tattered, hole-ridden clothes, and no one ever smiles.
Presenting perhaps the most terrifying vision of suicidal eternity conceivable–“Who could think of a better punishment, really?” intones protagonist Zia (Patrick Fugit) in voiceover, just after slitting his wrists to the opening credits–this hereafter looks a lot like life, but “just a little bit worse”: You still have to work crappy jobs, make rent, suffer annoying roommates, car troubles, heartache. Having “offed” himself in the aftermath of a bad breakup with his girlfriend only to learn she soon followed suit, Patrick hits the road with drinking buddy Eugene (Shea Whigham) hoping to find her. The pair shortly picks up a superhottie hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who claims a mistake has been made; she intends to lobby her way back to life once she finds “the people in charge.” And so the quest becomes a search for the Wizard of Oz.
Some issues: Despite the fact that it deals with suicide, “Wristcutters” is unnervingly inconsequential, making the prickly subject matter positively cuddly. A crucial flaw undermines the narrative logic (such as it is) when it’s eventually revealed that Mikal didn’t kill herself–she just OD’d–but no one thinks to point out that she may simply belong in another dimension of purgatory; not this particular one, but not life neither. And the absurdism Dukic strains to convey often lapses into hokey quirkiness (see the lit matches float skyward to become stars!).
But moments of jagged humor — Zia and Mikal awake on a rocky beach the night after their first kisses to discover they’ve been lying amidst hypodermic needles and used condoms — coupled with Fugit’s utterly committed sincerity (an eerie continuation of his puppy-dog act from “Almost Famous“) keep the film aloft. To the tunes of Eugene’s Russian rock band (music provided by NY-based Gogol Bordello), “Wristcutters” bops blithely along, and it’s easy to give in to its grooviness. Ultimately, the trio makes a pit stop at Kneller’s Happy Campers, and the community’s namesake, played by (who else?) Tom Waits, guides them toward what they’ve been seeking, and us toward an ending both infuriatingly pat and perfectly fitting.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]