(Suggested listening while reading this review: click here; don’t bother to watch the clip, since it’s just a fan slideshow) The film version of Etgar Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers” (which is also recreated in the graphic novel Pizzeria Kamikaze) has finally been released in the US (see the earlier review of Keret’s work here). Despite some major and possibly regrettable alterations to the setting and plot, it is still an excellent movie. The biggest disappointment is the location. The story takes place in an afterlife universe where people go after they have committed suicide. In the novella and graphic novel, this place is a city and surrounding countryside that bears a remarkable resemblance to Tel Aviv. The movie was shot in the United States in run-down parts of LA and somewhere near the Nevada-California border, which makes sense, since most cinematic universes are relocated to California. The characters are now mostly American, or recent immigrants to America. Choosing to make the whole movie American and losing the Israeli element of course robs the story of some of its original flavor, although in the novella the place is never named, and is only meant to resemble the lousy places where the suicides lived before they killed themselves. Suicide is not a culturally flat construct and in the context of an ironic Israeli tale it takes on an especially dark and provoking resonance. On the other hand, the Croatian director, Goran Dukic, has done a superb job choosing the grimmest and most derelict locations imaginable, and this does make up for the initial disappointment that our hero is now from New Jersey and his life has probably improved quite a bit now that he is dead and living in California.
Many alterations have been made to the story, but most of them work well and some brilliantly in helping the writing transition to a visual medium. Dukic shows enormous attention to detail in his choices of location and set decoration. In an interview he explains that he directed his crew to find the most run-down and undesirable objects imaginable for every scene. This was a clever and thrifty way of dealing with the task of creating an alternate universe on a shoestring budget. Added to the general dilapidation of everything is an element of whimsy which helps to underscore the absurdity of the dismal universe of suicides. For example, in a couple of scenes that call for some kind of transportation, ridiculously small vehicles appear, such as a tiny train car that seats only two people. As Dukic explains in the same interview, the color was desaturated after shooting, giving the whole movie an aged, slightly dirty look, like a yellowing, battered old photograph.
Many reviews of the movie accuse it of being yet another entry in the roadtrip/romance genre, with the added gimmick of the suicide universe. Some reviewers have even accused Dukic of glamorizing suicide or taking hipster irony to an unpalatable limit. The roadtrip/romance aspects of the film are far stronger than in the original story, no doubt mostly to give it more coherence and direction. The unexpectedly happy romantic ending was also added for the film, making the whole thing a lot more Hollywoody, despite its clear indie roots. Nonetheless, to take Wristcutters as a roadtrip romance is to misunderstand the underlying mood and message of the story. Far from glamorizing suicide, Keret’s story imagines the outcome of suicide as the opposite of desensitized escape or martyrdom, a continuation of the depressing state before the act, only just a bit more depressing and lonely. An exception to the more depressing rule might be the case of the side-kick character, Eugene, an aggressive, punky Russian immigrant rocker, whose entire family has committed suicide and is now happily reunited in suicide land. Though this character exists in the novella, he is not depicted (at least not in English translation) as a Russian immigrant. In the film, the family’s happiness at being reunited, their close bond and deep affection for one another, and their relative lack of interest in the fact that everything is slightly worse, seems a commentary on the trials of migration.
Eugene’s career as a musician when he was alive provides an excuse for an excellent soundtrack full of songs by the “Transglobal Gypsy Punk Rock” band, Gogol Bordello. The character of Eugene is in fact modeled on the lead singer and founder of Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hütz, a friend of the director, Goran Dukic. The opening scene includes a song by Tom Waits, who also plays the role of Kneller, an idiosyncratic charismatic group leader of sorts, in the film. The Tom Waits part of the movie, toward the end, is worth the price of admission alone, and his acting and character go a long way toward heightening the bizarreness of the story, which reaches a climax in a spectacular show put on by ‘the Messiah’, played by Will Arnett (AKA G.O.B. Bluth). The fact that Tom Waits and Will Arnett play roles very similar to other personas they have inhabited outside the film adds to the heightened surreality of these later scenes. Importing the baggage of very particular (indie-ish) pop culture icons makes the characters they play jump out like scenes in a pop-up book. The effect is clearly intended, and serves as a short hand for the elaborate characterizations in the novella that might otherwise require loads more explication in the film version.
And finally, it is worth taking a look at this interview with Goran Dukic and the female lead, Shannyn Sossamon, if only to see how mind-numbingly dull some interviewers are, how exhausting Sundance must be, and how startlingly undereducated Sossamon apparently is.