A quirky little movie about the friendship between an aging jazz musician and a young German guy trying to set up a funeral business, “Undertaker’s Paradise” is an often charming item pitched halfway between black comedy and melancholic romance. Part of a recent Teuton trend of shooting movies in English, pic is too small to cut much ice in the theatrical market it aims for linguistically, but would sit well on the small screen, with some minor festival action also indicated.
Hamburg-born director M.X. Oberg previously helmed the slight but interesting comedy “Under the Milky Way” (1995), which played the Toronto fest in 1995. Here his location is Wales, where Jim (Ben Gazzara), a washed-up American clarinetist reduced to playing in third-rate seaside towns — “celebrating my own downfall,” in his words — meets Hugo (Thomas Schmauser) when one of his aging audience drops dead of a heart attack.
Hugo works for the town’s sole undertaker but, despite being a foreigner in a smallish community, is anxious to strike out on his own. Jim, whose career is in its last stanza thanks to arthritis, takes a liking to the lad and accompanies him on his rounds when he goes solo.
Despite the fact that the town has “the highest mortality rate in Britain,” Hugo finds his efforts to start a business (dubbed Last Paradise) stymied at every turn because his ex-employer has all the contacts. Thanks to Jim’s help, he finally gets a chance and also benefits from the attentions of a horny nurse (Sally Dexter) who gives him the tip-off on fresh cadavers at her hospital.
Some of the dialogue sounds a little awkward, but after a slow start pic exerts a quiet appeal, with Niki Reiser’s light jazz score adding some bounce and (in the latter stages) an otherworldly touch to the basically weird story. It’s a good role for Gazzara, who brings a sad irony to his part with minimal effort, and he partners well with Schmauser, as the determined kid battling insuperable odds. As Hugo’s g.f., Emma Catherwood is an interesting talent, but her role is somewhat underwritten and peripheral.
Film is smoothly made on every level, without spurious gloss. Actual location was the Welsh town of Aberystwyth, nicely caught out of season in Martin Kukula’s lensing. Title of German-dubbed version is “Ein todsicheres Geschaeft” (A Dead-Cert Business).