The Good Life is a film that I’d wanted to see for a while, since Patrick Fugit and Zooey Deschanel are two of my favourite young actors, and it was apparently nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I finally got around to watching it last night, and I have to say, it was one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in a while. The premise seemed interesting (if not a little played out), about a young man who loves old Hollywood movies and feels like an outsider in a small football-obsessed town. But despite the best efforts of the cast, this is just a relentlessly dreary, poorly written film.
Mark Webber plays Jason, a young man from a poor background. After his father’s death, even the money from his two dead-end jobs isn’t enough to pay the electric bill. He has dreams of moving out of his small Nebraska town, but between his dependent mother (Deborah Rush) and the declining elderly owner of the movie theatre where he works (Harry Dean Stanton), Jason feels like too many people rely on him. He meets Frances (Deschanel), a supposedly intriguing young woman who Jason can relate to. Of course, everything goes tragically awry, and a bunch of mopey, quasi-philosophical voice-over narration ensues.
One of the storylines that I did like was the one between Jason and Gus, the ailing owner of the movie theatre. I thought their bond was actually believable, and that relationship had drama and interest without the movie having to force it on with ridiculous situations. I would have liked to see more about Jason’s sister (Drea De Matteo) and her husband, because they seemed like interesting characters, but they were only in two or three scenes in the entire movie. A lot of other talented actors befell the same fate. Patrick Fugit shines in the small part he has, but his character never really goes anywhere. Chris Klein occasionally pops up to play an over-the-top ex-high school football player, but the whole storyline about him terrorizing Jason is just ridiculous. Bill Paxton (also an executive producer here) is in two scenes, and seems to be in the movie solely to blatantly explain the “twist” of the story to Jason. Every character seems to have some singular, tragic characteristic that defines them, but beyond that, their characters are never really developed. They’re all just conveniently placed to revolve around Jason’s story.
And though he didn’t have much to work with, I didn’t like Mark Webber as Jason. I understand that the character is supposed to be introverted and restrained, but Webber just didn’t have any presence on the screen. He seems like a potentially interesting actor, but here, he doesn’t show us much of anything, besides some forlorn stares. Deschanel at least brings some life to the screen, but her character is so absurd, and she doesn’t seem remotely close to an actual person. Everyone’s just a tidy little cardboard cut-out of a supposedly “quirky” character.
Let’s talk about the voice-over narration. A lot of people think it’s a cheap device, but I am a fan of voice-over narration, when it’s done well. But there is far too much of it here, and it often goes on for minutes at a time. The main character comes across so blandly that I think they were trying to make him a “deeper” character this way, but it just comes across like a poorly written high school drama class monologue. The dialogue between characters also seems forced at many points, like its only purpose is to get the minimal plot points across.
The camera work is certainly trying to be arty and “indie”, but only partially succeeds. If so much of this story revolves around Jason’s disconnect with his hometown, they should have given us a clearer picture of what this town looks like. I think that a desolate small town can be oddly beautiful, but the director partially misses the potential of building it into the story. The film did have a certain wintery atmosphere, which kind of worked, but it still didn’t feel fully developed. While a film like Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park was all about woozy atmosphere, it still managed to have interesting characters. Similarly, The United States of Leland was not a perfect film, but it had a few really fascinating characters, and still had a distinctive atmosphere. The Good Life seems like it was trying to have style and substance, but it didn’t succeed in either regard. And after building all that mood and beating its protagonist down so insistently, it throws it all away for a cheap cop-out of an ending. That was the last straw for me. Do yourself a favour and avoid this one.