It's a Wondrous Life
Review by PAUL BURCH
March 18th, 2018
IT'S A WONDROUS LIFE takes its title from an iconic place (something a lot of super indie films seem to be doing a lot lately), but instead of being a neo-remake of George Bailey, directors Joseph Aniska and Larry Traiger are here for something else entirely. In fact, the title is drenched in a deep sense of irony. The long takes here aren’t even about establishing the tonal shifts between each character’s interaction - in fact they're only here when there's an attempt to distort the flow of the otherwise hyperactive scenes full of energy in every cut. There's room for such experimentation, but not at the expense of what little story we have at hand, because IT'S A WONDROUS LIFE feels like it can never settle on itself (okay, he's in a shower eating a banana, but tell us how he really feels.)
It doesn't feel incompetent, just curiously confused. I'm ashamed to even say that I'm unsurprised by the film having more than one director. I plead this with a grain of salt as there's many anthological aspects to the movie's structure and I was almost tempted to praise the film's messiness and its many allusions that can be applied to Jacques Rivette (if anything, credit is due to any film that reminds me of Céline and Julie Go Boating). There are scenes here of animation and of underground theatre. Neither them, nor karate in others, can establish a sense of place. I mean, it's not easy to bring up a film of this nature and compare it to a Rivette masterpiece, but it's earned. Comparison does not equate to similar quality, however, so keep that in mind.
Don't let the online summaries of the plot fool you, either. It takes almost an hour before those events come into play and before this does happen, we're left to ponder the characters themselves – and I pluralize them due to the film never keeping enough tabs on either to give them a) any kind of density that legitimizes them, or b) help the audience understand if we're supposed to be passive observers, or purely disconnected from their own reality. To be fair, I'd have a hard time summarizing this film, too.
It's not that this is a dual story, just that it doesn't seem to make any effort in paralleling them to even matter. It's a very telling decision in a screenplay when a character (or multiple characters) make decisions based simply on what's written on the page. In terms of our absurdist hero Ronald Slayback (played with a Vine-like sensibility by director Aniska), and the straight man with the more boring "John Doe" name: Trevor Jones (played by Douglas Rizzo Johnson), their perspectives share nothing in the first hour of the film. Ronald gets into comedic hijinks, while Trevor thinks the entire world around him is in the process of its own rapture but he's also strangely (and uncharacteristically) okay with it. There is nothing these two have in common and it seems almost condescending that – at the depths of its creation – the only thing the writing team could manage to connect them was simply having them be former classmates. This is a device so primitive to American comedy, now, that the fact this film didn't even attempt to subvert them proves to us that this film is oblivious to its own playbook.
Rivette's control over his narrative layers seemed to fit the mold of filmmaking itself (what does the side story involving a room full of gays have to attribute?) In this film, there's a strange performance art going on and we get a few comical reactions, but they symbolize nothing. In fact, they're not even preoccupied in the narrative. Are they within the head of our loopy protagonist? Could be. Are they illuminating the true infrastructure of the film's absurdities? Possibly. When a film sets itself up on the premise of being absurdist, how anybody could treat mental illness as a source for some of its supposed absurdity is beyond me. This film wants so much to be like John Waters that it settles on feeling similar to American Pie sitting next to the films that wanted so hard to be like that franchise.
The final hour or so (or at least 45 minutes) of IT'S A WONDROUS LIFE is dedicated to a certain competition that reeks of ignorance. It is elitist in any capacity after a film to label it "offensive" – especially one on the independent scene. The problem is, however, that this key plot-specific event applies nothing to the film itself. In fact, at this point, the film is no longer clear of a protagonist, and the characters' own unrelated trajectories from their own perspectives has nothing to do with anything anymore. There's another character present, and he almost always hogs the spotlight, with Douglas Rizzo Johnson forcing himself to play straight man to an entirely different character.
I'm not entirely sure who this film is made for, but I'd be curious to know.
Not about who just so happens to like it but also those the directors aimed it for. It's way too common of a misstep to mistake originality for inaccessibility and IT'S A WONDROUS LIFE does this in a way that is embarrassing. This is a film that seems to alienate its audience and if that's because it's taking notes from either shock cinema or meme troll cinema, it can't hide behind its lunacy because everything is so vanilla. There's not enough pop culture density here (save for a few random film references including some Kubrickian zooms and a direct reference to The Shining) to make it transgressive (and they falter at doing that.) In fact, it's decisions of absurdity have been used decades ago; the least bit I need to pander about being an oversaturated fear of BDSM queer culture and the "straight man" playing second fiddle to their caricatures. I can't even credit that consistency with humor, because I don't believe the filmmakers even connected that themselves – and if they did, they'd then have to answer some very dangerous questions about what their intentions were with making such a film in this fashion revolve around queer stereotypes. It's baffling how little the film manages to satirize or caricature these people. It's not bad because it's tasteless...it's bad because it does absolutely nothing new.
I'll admit that I sometimes enjoy being perplexed by films. But I don't know how many people are aware that perplexing films are still films with a point. There may not be any straightforward explanation for events, just as there may be ambiguities in what we know about the characters. There are multiple ways to tell a story and it's all about finding the right way to gain this. IT'S A WONDROUS LIFE reminds me of some of the worst films of this nature – the ones that don't understand that you still need a story, even if points Z come before points A and B, which I keep returning to because this movie doesn’t have anywhere to go.
It's a Wondrous Life isn't just a fascinating failure because it dared to stretch its reflexes of good taste but because it's nowhere as shocking or clever as it likes to think of itself. And I'm still unsure if that's even an attribute that I was supposed to remotely care about in the first place. If to alienate was the goal, it’s a success. But if so, that also means it fails to be good trash.