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The Good Life (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

The Good Life

The Good Life


Starring Mark Webber, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Paxton, Chris Klein, Drea De Matteo, Harry Dean Stanton, Patrick Fugit, Deborah Rush, Donal Logue, Bruce McGill and Michael Baxter.

Screenplay by Steve Berra.

Directed by Steve Berra.

Distributed by Farfalla Films.  89 minutes.  Rated R.

There are certain films which are obviously created simply for film festival cult status – arty, moody, quirky, a little uncomfortable in their own skins and wanting to be seen as oh-so-deep.

The Good Life is one of those films.  It is a movie that shies from mass consumption, more comfortable with its own morose and alternately beautiful and sordid world view.

Yet, though it has some fascinating bits and some truly stunning acting on display, The Good Life is simply not quite as high quality a film as it thinks it is.  There is a fine line between arty and pretentious and The Good Life stumbles over that line way too regularly to recommend it whole-heartedly – though it has enough interesting ideas and moments that it that it does merit finding an audience that would appreciate the movie for it’s own subtle and particular charms.

The Good Life is obviously a labor of love – and I mean that in both the best possible way and the worst possible way all at once.

In fact, it has a cast of intriguing and respected names – many of whom take small, inconsequential roles.  For example, despite the fact that his name and face is prominently displayed on the DVD case, Bill Paxton only has two rather inconsequential sequences which probably offer less than five minutes of screen time.  Drea De Matteo (The Sopranos), Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) and Bruce McGill (Animal House) also get barely anything to do.

The main character here – a small town loser named Jason who is a quiet, anguished outcast because of an immune function condition which makes him unable to grow any hair – is played (with impressive intensity) by the mostly unknown Mark Webber (probably best known as Ethan Hawke’s surrogate in The Hottest State), who gets sixth billing on the box.

Jason lives in a rundown section of Lincoln, Nebraska.  He has been taking care of his mother (Deborah Rush) and sister (Drea De Matteo) since his mean-spirited father left the family.  As the action begins, the father has committed suicide – giving Jason yet another unwanted responsibility, to close down his apartment – and a gift from his father that he is afraid to open.

Jason has a dead-end job at a gas station and can’t even earn enough to pay the electricity bill.  He is bullied by a local tough (American Pie’s Chris Klein in an impressive against-type role) and taunted by his football-obsessed brother-in-law (Donal Logue).

He also works evenings at a repertory cinema (which somehow is able to stay open despite the fact that they almost never have more than two customers a night) that is owned by an aging man (Harry Dean Stanton) who appears to be slipping into Alzheimer’s disease.

As so often happens in these films, possible redemption appears in the form of a beautiful woman who seems to see Jason for who he is, not how he looks.  Unfortunately, Frances (a luminous performance by the lovely Zooey Deschanel) is never exactly what she seems.  She is a beautiful enigma who almost never tells the whole truth and seems to share quite a few of the same biographical quirks of Judy Garland.  (Garland’s music, life and films get a lot of mileage in the plot.)

Frances blows in and out of Jason’s life with shocking quickness, in fact when she leaves the audience briefly wonders if she was all a figment of Jason’s imagination.  It turns out she wasn’t, in fact when it is revealed who she really is, it is neither a surprise (in fact, it was my original guess to her identity before her mystical disappearance clouded the waters), nor, frankly, is her character’s true identity overly relevant to the plot.

The movie’s title is meant to be taken with the ultimate of irony until the very, very end.  It all sort of falls apart at that climax though, where Jason goes through two giant and conflicting character changes with little warning or motivation.  Even the tag line on the DVD case – “He’s finally had enough” – evinces a character arc that is never quite fleshed out.  Yes, Jason is putting up with a lot of crap here, but it seems like that has been a pretty constant condition for him.  The audience is never quite sure what it is that supposedly is pushing him over the edge, nor do we know what exactly is supposed to try to pull him back from the abyss.

It almost seems like writer/director Steve Berra felt that he had to get to the ending of the film without actually having the chance (or taking the time) to set that finale up.  This is somewhat strange, at under 90 minutes long they could have certainly added some additional scenes to make the transitions seem less jarring.

After a brief festival run which climaxed in a Sundance showing (it never quite made it to the art houses), The Good Life slips directly into the video racks, where it will undoubtedly disappear into a lonely life on the lower shelves.  The movie doesn’t totally deserve this solitary fate – and I do believe that many people who do embrace the movie may very well become die-hard champions for it.  However, with the melancholy isolation of the storyline and characters, maybe this makes a certain amount of karmic sense.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 8, 2008.

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