It’s tough to find comedy in a dead-serious, skid-row-set film about homelessness, sexual abuse, incest and the exploitation of immigrants, but the misguided “A Beautiful Life” manages to provide unintentional laughs by the barrel. A waste of a talented, earnest cast, this borderline offensive indie, set for an Oct. 2 limited release, shouldn’t take up too much valuable theater space before fading away.
Angela Sarafyan (who deserves better) toplines as Maggie, a troubled teenage runaway who lands in downtown Los Angeles and seeks refuge in a dumpster behind a strip club — all the better to facilitate gratuitous and contextually inappropriate footage of topless dancers. She’s soon discovered by dishwasher David (Jesse Garcia; see note about Sarafyan above), a good-looking illegal immigrant who invites her into his oddly palatial dwelling, offers her free shelter and food, and behaves like a perfect gentleman. Naturally, Maggie repays his kindness with needless rudeness and resentment just long enough to realize she’s attracted to him.
Both characters speak in unnaturally terse, staccato bursts of exposition (resembling something David Mamet might write after a sharp blow to the head), as does Bai Ling’s Esther, a stripper and aspiring singer torn between two men, in one of the pic’s many tenuously connected subplots. (Debi Mazar, Dana Delany and Meltem Cumbul round out the supporting cast.)
Eventually, traces of a coherent narrative emerge as Maggie comes to terms with her sexuality (twisted and sadomasochistic, in keeping with the sensationalistic tone of the film) and winds up indebted to Turkish drug runners after she’s robbed at gunpoint by a gang of scantily clad Eastern European models, who then flee in a limo while screaming, “I love America!” That this latter scene isn’t played for laughs should indicate just how far off the rails the film is willing to go — were it not for its tasteless, opportunistic inclusion of so many serious issues, one would almost be tempted to applaud the pic’s sheer audacity.
To his credit, director Alejandro Chomski usually manages to keep his poorly lit shots in focus, though intentionally jittery handheld camera work and epileptic editing make half the film seem as though it takes place during a small earthquake. Other tech contributions feel rushed and half-finished.