Suicide is very much a laughing matter in “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” a genially warped road-trip comedy that imagines a special purgatory for those who have willfully departed the land of the living. Though its absurdist inventions occasionally border on twee, this affectionate slow-blooming romance mines an understated vein of comic melancholy that the actors’ wistful performances perfectly capture. Prime specialty fare is sure to find passionate admirers in limited release and marks an auspicious feature debut for helmer Goran Dukic.
Zia (Patrick Fugit) awakes one morning, methodically cleans his room and, just as the opening credits have wrapped, slashes his wrists in his bathroom. A pan to a framed photo of his beautiful ex, Desiree (Leslie Bibb), more or less sums up why the kid’s decided to end it all.
Except that he hasn’t. Instead, Zia finds himself in a dusty afterlife that looks an awful lot like Bakersfield, the final destination for those who have “offed.” Now making a living (so to speak) at a place called Kamikaze Pizza while sharing a ramshackle apartment with a large, temperamental stranger (Abraham Benrubi), he finds existence more or less the same as his previous life, “just a little worse.”
Zia eventually befriends fellow suicide Eugene (Shea Whigham), a Russian ex-rock star and irascible malcontent whose whole family has managed to wind up in the suicide after-life. “Not every family is as lucky as we are,” beams his mother (Mary Pat Gleason).
When Zia finds out that his beloved Desiree has also made her way to the afterlife, he and Eugene set off to find her in Eugene’s car — a lemon, held together with duct tape, that becomes a character in its own right. The similarities to “The Wizard of Oz” only deepen when they pick up a sassy hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon).
Adapted by the Croatian-born Dukic from Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s 1998 short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” the film has an unmistakably Slavic sensibility that manifests itself in the morosely offbeat humor, the characters’ names and composer Bobby Johnston’s wry, flavorful original score.
Yet even at its weirdest, pic is grounded in the vivid and completely believable relationships that emerge among the three leads. Eugene, an aggressive horndog, makes no secret of his interest in Mikal, but she cozies up to shy, sensitive Zia.
Dukic elicits beautifully underplayed performances from his three leads, though Whigham’s alternately infuriating and endearing Eugene does get some large laughs. Sossamon makes Mikal feisty and alluring in a resigned goth-girl kind of way, while 23-year-old Fugit, who’s matured a lot since his road-movie debut “Almost Famous,” effortlessly engages as the film’s emotional glue.
Tom Waits delivers a juicy comic turn as the man who runs a utopian campsite that the threesome stumbles upon. But when Zia and Mikal wind up at the fortress of the Messiah (“Arrested Development’s” Will Arnett, who gets a laugh just for showing up), the story’s central conceit begins to wear out its charm, as the glum, resolutely low-key mood veers at times into the soporific. Fortunately, a quietly moving ending intervenes, and pic’s existential punchline — Zia has to die to figure out the meaning of life — registers with poignant force.
Dingy interiors and dusty exteriors were all filmed in and around Southern California, combining with Vanja Cernjul’s deliberately drab lensing to create a persuasive vision of Inland Empire hell. Exemplary makeup work ensures that the suicidal characters all look appropriately pale.