Labored comedy “The Darwin Awards” sports too many formulaic weaknesses of mainstream laffers while straining for an indie cred that hitherto came naturally to writer-director Finn Taylor (“Dream With the Fishes,” “Cherish”). Topliners Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder sink along with a boatload of name thesps wasted in fleeting, unfunny support parts. Stars’ presence and what sounds like an amusing concept will likely translate into brief theatrical exposure. But pic’s natural berth will be cable, where it won’t look out of place between the nth rerun of David Spade and Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicles.
The actual Darwin Awards are bestowed each year — posthumously — on individuals who bring upon themselves the stupidest, most preventable deaths, thereby “improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it.”
Taylor’s screenplay uses that notion to stage slapstick catastrophes. Yet most fall rather flat, and theme doesn’t lend the episodic, unfocused script much overall coherence or sense of purpose.
Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a San Francisco Police Dept. homicide detective with a brilliant ability to second-guess perps’ actions and motivations. Unfortunately, he also faints at the sight of blood, and other paranoid, obsessive-compulsive idiosyncrasies make him a freak on the force.
When he bungles the capture of the serial “North Beach Killer” (Tim Blake Nelson), he’s fired, and offers his services to a skeptical insurance company. He’s given 30 days to prove his skills will be useful sussing out false claims.
Shuttled off to the Midwest, he’s paired with cynical field agent Siri Tyler (Ryder). They travel around the country investigating wrongful death and other suspicious claims, accompanied by a film school student (Wilmer Valderrama, mostly off-screen) who started out videotaping cop Michael for his thesis project.
The bizarre cases scrutinized prompt flashbacks to the deaths themselves, bringing on a host of familiar faces to play dumb-and-dumber neck-riskers. A yuppie office worker (Ty Burrell) gets his hand stuck in a vending machine, with fatal results. An executive (Alessandro Nivola) tries to prove his high-rise window is “unbreakable.” An English tourist couple (Tom Hollander, Juliana Margulies), driving a rented RV, seriously misconstrue the meaning of “cruise control.”
Other episodes include two rural Minnesota yokels (Chris Penn, who died day before pic’s Sundance premiere, and Max Perlich) who combine ice fishing and dynamite.
Taylor doesn’t evince much flair for slapstick, and the kind of gleeful Americana absurdist that’s worked on occasion for the Coen brothers (e.g. “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo”) just doesn’t emerge in this pedestrian presentation. Spatting-to-cuddling evolution between his character and Ryder’s is strictly by-numbers, while climax reconfronting the North Beach Killer is just silly. That plot thread never really connects, and the device of having Valderrama videotape everything is even more uselessly gratuitous.
Seldom very vivid on-screen, Fiennes delivers another charmless perf here, a particular pity since at least a couple actors on-site — David Arquette (director’s “Fishes” star) and Nelson — could have had a field day with Michael’s mad-professor quirks and social awkwardness. Ryder is not seen to much better advantage; mutual chemistry is nil.
Pic’s name-dropping of hipster touchstones (alt-rock critical darlings Wilco, etc.) comes off just self-indulgent. When action returns to San Francisco, this gets much worse, with legendary beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti even dragged on for a cameo.
Design and tech contribs are polished if routine, with Hiro Narita’s lensing missing out on an opportunity to really exploit the cross-country locations. While Taylor’s films always boast good various-artist rock tracks, this time they seem a little too close to a mix-tape raison d’etat.