Set inside the daft world of its eccentric hero, “The Living Wake” could be termed anything from a black comedy to an absurdist/existentialist literary tale. In the end, however, pic defies all categorization, joining a small pantheon of pics including “Withnail & I” and Peter Greenaway’s “Drowning byNumbers” that whistle past the graveyard with aplomb. Marking a stunning feature debut by lead actor and co-writer Mike O’Connell, pic is certain to set tongues wagging at fests and looks primed to do well in theatrical niches and tony ancillary havens.
Opening mock newsreel, titled “The Life and Times of K. Roth Binew,” lets auds know they’re in for something altogether different. Binew’s father (Jim Gaffigan) apparently left the family when Binew was a lad. The boy was rescued from a life of sheer hell by his nanny Marla (Diane Kagan), whom he learned to love in more ways than one. Binew grows up to become a dabbler in the arts, increasingly burdened by the sense that he’ll never accomplish a complete work of art, or anything else for that matter.
Newsreel brings the saga up to the present day. Binew’s doctor (Sam Goldfarb) has told him he will expire of “a vague and grave disease,” and Binew announces — everything the supremely self-involved and meticulously groomed Binew says is an announcement — that if he must leave this world, now is as good a time as any.
To this end, Binew assigns his official biographer and driver, Mills Joaquin (Jesse Eisenberg), to transport him around the forested town in his bicycle rickshaw so he can take care of all his final arrangements. The sight of Mills taking Binew to and fro in the rickshaw is a classic absurdist piece as staged by director Sol Tryon, capped by scene after scene of dialogue (written by O’Connell and regular co-writer Peter Kline) that recall Tom Stoppard in their precise, hilarious and mind-expanding use of language.
A proud alcoholic and casual swindler, Binew manages to get free booze out of his “liquorsmith” (Ben Duhl), ventures to the mortuary to demand a Viking-style burial on water, then goes to a farm to steal a goat for a picnic in honor of nanny Marla.
Binew is a man certain of his destiny as a great and elegant loser, and each step leading up to his wake seems to confirm this: His neighbor and arch-nemesis Reginald (Eddie Pepitone) sends Mills off the road by attacking him with smoke, rusty nails and ham steaks, while, in a hilarious sequence, the local librarian (Ann Dowd) firmly refuses to allow Binew to bequeath his books to the facility’s collection.And, as if the special world of “The Living Wake” weren’t complete enough, Binew bursts into song for a few numbers that lift O’Connell’s perf into the realm of Robert Preston’s in “The Music Man.”While this will surely miff viewers unable to adjust their sights (or ears) to O’Connell’s aggressively declarative style, others will be rewarded with one of recent cinema’s most distinctive and original lead turns.
In a final test of pic’s brilliance, the titular wake (which arrives just before the hour mark and lasts the better part of a half-hour) is everything and more that a K. Roth Binew send-off should be.
Playing opposite the monumental O’Connell would seem to be an impossible assignment, but Eisenberg is note-perfect as his steady servant and go-to guy. Supporting ensemble couldn’t be more colorful. Pepitone, Gaffigan, Dowd, Kagan and Rebecca Comerfield (as a psychic) are among the standouts.
Low-budget pic looks fabulous, due in part to Tryon’s highly crafted mise-en-scene, Scott Miller’s intensely warm cinematography (lensed on well-chosen locales in woodsy southern Maine) and Michael Grasley’s production design, seemingly inspired by Binew’s nutty, upside-down sense of the world.
Carter Little and O’Connell’s score and three blackly comic songs (one co-written with Kline) ideally cap the eccentricity.