Following a hilariously deranged opening, the laughs rapidly taper off in Jeff Jenkins' feature debut, "Play Dead." Patterned as an acid-tinged parody of early John Hughes movies, mercifully short pic makes decent use of a generally strong cast but ultimately fails to sustain its own momentum.

Following a hilariously deranged opening comic vignette, the laughs rapidly taper off in writer-director Jeff Jenkins’ feature debut, “Play Dead.” Patterned as an acid-tinged parody of early John Hughes movies, mercifully short pic makes decent use of a generally strong, game cast but ultimately fails to sustain its own momentum or to overcome the essential unsavoriness of its primary comic device. Intentional camp value and gay theme could give pic some life on the fest and midnight-movie circuit, though ancillary prospects are much stronger.

When nebbishy high-schooler Dale (Nathan Bexton) arrives to baby-sit Dustine (Jessica Stone), an obscenely precocious 7-year-old, latter’s mom, Darlene (Sherrie Rose), who makes Erin Brockovich look like a paragon of haute couture, can’t stop herself from making passes at Dale, even though she knows he’s gay.

For his part, Dale can’t wait to get into Darlene’s stash of male porno magazines, which he carefully inserts into his yearbook while fantasizing about the Adonis captain of the high school wrestling team, Raymond Haver (Jason Hall). In a scabrously funny episode, Dale daydreams of Raymond coming over to Darlene’s trailer, revealing that he, too, is gay, and proceeding to seduce Dale.

But Dale is soon shocked back into reality by the unexpected arrival of his gal pal, Violet (Liza Minnelli look-alike Diva Zappa), who has just accidentally incinerated a truck that rear-ended her car, along with the driver behind the wheel. Upon returning to the scene of the accident, Dale and Violet discover that the charred body belongs to none other than Raymond, and in Violet’s panicked efforts to cover her tracks, Dale’s thoughts turn to the fulfillment of his ultimate sexual fantasy.

Up until this point, “Play Dead” sustains a modest level of amusing slapstick, highlighted by Jenkins’ self-consciously naive direction, which effortlessly recalls the look and feel of modestly budgeted 1980s teen comedies. But none of those pics ever succeeded (much less tried) at selling necrophilia as a subject fit for screwball farce. And try as it might (and it does try and try and try), neither does “Play Dead.”

Bexton makes for a superb comic patsy throughout, but pic lacks the original ideas sufficient to sustain itself as a feature, even at its abbreviated running time; “Play Dead” becomes progressively less funny as it becomes more and more manic.

By the end, film has deteriorated into a pale carbon copy of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” “Enid Is Sleeping” and numerous other entries in that once-upon-a-time subgenre focused on the frantic transportation of an unusually animated corpse.

Under adverse circumstances, Hall makes the most of a thankless, unplayable role; Terry Keiser should be quaking in his boots. Tech contributions are adequate, with the appropriately sitcomy look of Mark Putnam’s lensing and Alan Galvin’s production design as standouts.

Play Dead

Production

A Headstrong Entertainment presentation in association with Managing Artists Concepts. Produced by Jeff Jenkins, Gary Kohn, Tino Sage. Executive producer, Joe Jacobs. Co-executive producers, Kerry Jones, Robert Tisdale. Co-producers, Kent Belden, Mickey Cottrell. Directed, written by Jeff Jenkins.

Crew

Camera (color), Mark Putnam; editors, Curtiss Clayton, David Finklestein; music, Peter Golub, Romeo Antonio; production designer, Alan Galvin; sound, Minh Tran, associate producers, Michael Carr, Erika Dorbin, John Hawks, Daniel Powless. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2001. Running time: 79 MIN.

With

Violet Wertsema - Diva Zappa Dale Spitler - Nathan Bexton Darlene Murphy - Sherrie Rose Dustine Murphy - Jessica Stone Raymond Murphy - Jason Hall
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