The Living Wake is suffused with a distinctively quirky sensibility, but one that, while bearing little relation to the dominant Juno/Little Miss Sunshine strand of Amerindie preciousness, is nonetheless so insistently irritating and so consistently lacking in laughs that Sol Tryon’s alleged comedy quickly becomes an exercise in exhaustion. Starring Mike O’Connell as K. Roth Binew, an arrogant, booze-slurping eccentric who fancies himself a literary giant and who’s given to pontificating like a freshman theater major as he’s driven around town in a makeshift rickshaw by his “best friend, authorized biographer, and poet extraordinaire” Mills (Jesse Eisenberg), the film begins with Binew’s doctor presenting him with a death announcement, informing that he’s dying of a “vague disease.” Convinced that he’s to expire at 7:30 on the evening of the day the film takes place, Binew and Mills make their way across town, arranging last-minute preparations for death, inviting people to a “living wake” in which the guests will be “treated” to a performance before watching Binew die, and waiting for the “brief, but powerful monologue” that the soon-to-be-deceased’s long-gone father promised would explain the meaning of life to somehow manifest itself.
The Living Wake is a comedy of melancholy, structured as one man’s search to find meaning in the face of impending death, but it’s a search that the film takes only intermittently seriously. One minute it’s gleefully laughing in the face of mortality, as when Binew, evincing not the slightest sign of discomfiture, visits a funeral parlor to make arrangements for his own burial, the next it finds its protag in great anxiety over his legacy, worrying that “there was nothing that I gave this world, so it’s like I never lived.” Tryon imprints a certain melancholic ambience in the ultimate wake sequence, where the witnesses/mourners assemble in front of the central stage awaiting the inevitable, but then he subjects them (and us) to such “entertainment” as Binew donning a dress for his role as an antebellum Southern belle in his one woman play “Remember the Dawn” and we realize the filmmakers are far more interested in indulging a penchant for supposedly comic weirdness than integrating this comedy into its perfunctory investigation of life’s final purpose.
Despite a single funny gag in which Binew’s efforts to have the depressing children’s book he’s written added to the local library’s collection are thwarted by a member of the library board’s disapproval of his mixing of genres, this is essentially a collection of questionable gags that unsuccessfully try to build on the central conceit of a flamboyant man preparing for his own death. The Living Wake‘s joke is effectively exhausted by the title; the rest is just Mike O’Connell’s strained emoting.