The Darwin Awards (2006) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for language, violent images, some sexuality and drug use
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette, Chris Penn, Wilmer Valderrama, Lukas Haas, Ty Burrell, Juliette Lewis, Metallica, Max Perlich, Judah Friedlander, Brad Hunt, Julianna Margulies, Tom Hollander, Nora Dunn, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robin Tunney
Director: Finn Taylor
Screenplay: Finn Taylor
Review published March 16, 2007
Joseph Fiennes (The Great Raid, The Merchant of Venice) plays crackerjack, hemophobic SFPD forensic detective Michael Burrows, who is known for being insanely cautious about everything he does. He does have one particular obsession, and that is the so-called Darwin Awards, which are fictional annual awards (delivered in book and internet form) given to people who die through acts of sheer stupidity (a man straps a jet engine to his car, a woman puts an RV in cruise control thinking it will drive itself, etc.) , thus taking the dumbest among us out of the human gene pool. After losing his job, Michael gets a trial job working as a profiler for an insurance company, as he is sure that he can use his skills to come up with a profile for people most likely to become another "Darwin" statistic. He is paired up with insurance claims investigator Siri Taylor (Ryder, Simone), and together, they investigate the weird and wacky ways of people claiming money for acts that were caused by their own stupidity.
Writer-director Finn Taylor scored a minor cult hit with his quirky, eccentric comic thriller, Cherish, which generated some indie buzz for its unique, infectious energy, including getting a good review from yours truly. It's been four years since that film, and with such an intriguing premise, one which he has worked on for nearly ten years, I was certain Finn could pull a winner out, especially with such star power on his side. Perhaps expectations might have played a role as to why surprise like Cherish has become a minor favorite of mine and an expected success like The Darwin Awards is a disappointment, In this outing, Taylor seems like he's trying too hard to be clever, and though his imagination is admirable, as a comedy, his film falls short regardless of whatever direction he manages to take it, primarily because it goes everywhere and nowhere at once.
Films that are in episodic form are often at odds with themselves. On the one hand, the new scenarios and characters can keep the story moving along without things getting too bogged down. On the other, comedic momentum rarely carries throughout the film, as some parts are funny, others not; when each scene spends mandatory time in introducing characters, it sometimes takes a while before the humor can start to pay off. Couple the wacky plot with typical road movie shenanigans, and a forced romantic comedy, and you can already see that Taylor may already be trying too much for one film. I haven't even mentioned the amount of cameo appearances that occur throughout, from Metallica, to "Mythbusters" stars Hyneman and Savage, beat poet Faringhetti, and other seemingly random recognizable names and faces. Oh, and lest I forget, as if there wasn't enough already going on, for the entire movie, there is a documentarian shooting all of this as footage for his documentary. Too many angles here, Finn. There just aren't many reasons for the continuous distractions except to divert attention away from the fact that this plot doesn't amount to much.
Though Fiennes and Ryder have delivered solid performances in the past, their characters in The Darwin Awards would appear more suited to actors who are a bit quirkier and more natural comedic personalities. Their "normalcy" makes what could have been cute characterizations seem more like people with serious mental problems that need immediate psychiatric attention. A bit of a romance brews slowly between them, but it comes off as artificial, merely contrived as the film draws to the conclusion in the hopes of having happier endings for both of them.
The Darwin Awards isn't without merit, as it does feature a few nice performers, a zestful energy, and an occasional burst of cleverness that actually seems genuinely inspired, but all in all, perhaps Taylor should have trust his characters and interesting premise more, instead of throwing everything at us he can muster in terms of celebrity-dropping and forced slapstick shenanigans.
I often compare films with food for some reason (possibly because I'm usually hungry by the time I get to writing the final paragraphs), and I shall do so once again: Some people enjoy cheese pizza, some pepperoni, some a combination several toppings. However, there are very few people who would go to a pizza parlor and ask for every single topping on the menu, even if unlimited toppings were offered at no charge. Why not? Usually, the more toppings you load up, you'll get far less of the toppings you really like, and some toppings should never be mixed with others, as they would make the whole pie rather unpalatable. Each slice of The Darwin Awards is overloaded to the collapsing point with everything Taylor could find to pile on top of it, resulting in a dish that is far less tasty and much too messy to enjoyably consume.
©2007 Vince Leo