After.Life

"You have to look beautiful for your funeral."

I’ll say this for After.Life: it is sure to be the only film this century that features Justin Long, Hollywood’s premier clean-cut nice guy, backhanding an 11 year-old boy. He does so roughly halfway through the movie — a full-on smack in a fit of indignant rage. It is such a majestic moment that I perked up, thinking that After.Life was getting ready to shake off its pseudo-arthouse stupor and reach for a level of camp. No dice. The movie, which plays like a snooty, deliberately obtuse version of Saw, is undercooked, self-serious nonsense from beginning to end.

Rewatched in the mind’s eye, After.Life is actually rather intriguing, at least conceptually. I can’t reveal the details of why without spoiling the film, but suffice it to say that the juxtaposition of what it pretends to be about and what it turns out to be about is, on paper, interesting and even kind of cool. The degree to which the movie is nonetheless a tedious slog is remarkable.

As the film opens, Anna (Christina Ricci) is going through the motions. She goes about a job as a schoolteacher with a competent, dead-eyed indifference. She damn near sleeps through sex with her lawyer boyfriend Paul (Long), who glumly remarks, “You used to enjoy it.” When Paul invites her out to dinner, expensive wine in tow, planning to propose, she picks a fight and runs out in a huff.

Then, of course: a car accident. Apparently a fatal one, because Anna “wakes up” in the cellar of a funeral home, where the funeral director, a solemn fellow named Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), informs her that, well, she’s dead. Why is she talking? Well, Eliot has a gift: he can talk to the recently deceased, and shepherd their souls to the afterlife. Oh, and he’d like to pump her with a yellowish drug that will “relax your muscles” while he prepares her for the funeral. Meanwhile, Paul is hysterical and ultimately becomes convinced that Anna isn’t really dead, while one of Anna’s young students (Chandler Canterbury) takes an unhealthy interest in the goings-on at the funeral home.

Of course, everything ends up being not as it seems. And conceptually, like I said, After.Life ultimately sounds kind of interesting. The problem is that the movie doesn’t work at all scene-to-scene and moment-to-moment. For much of the film, director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo is working with an intriguing premise: Anna is being told that she’s a ghost, but doesn’t believe it. Okay, you might say — what of it? Might she come up with a way to test whether she’s “real”? Or maybe try to escape the cellar where (she thinks) she’s being held prisoner? Beyond an abortive attempt to call Paul, which amounts to little, the answer is no: she doesn’t do anything but complain, and at one point break things in a fit of rage.

The same can be said for the subplot involving Paul, whose hysterical grief turns into a paranoid conviction that Eliot is holding Anna, very much alive, prisoner in his basement. Until the film’s final moments, nothing whatsoever comes of this. He shows up at the funeral home demanding to see Anna and is rebuffed. He goes to Anna’s school and backhands the 11 year-old. He goes to the police who don’t believe him. That’s about all of it.

After.Life has no sense of drama or excitement. As a horror film, it fails miserably by virtue of being a bore. As an arthouse genre experiment, it’s little better, simply because Wojtowicz-Vosloo has no idea what makes the horror genre tick. Despite starting with a good idea, After.Life just leaves a trio of talented actors to flounder, deer-in-the-headlights style, on the screen.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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