What if the live-in boyfriend you’ve been dating for a short period time were to suddenly drop dead? If you’re Mary (Heather Graham), it means discovering how little you knew about him—that the rudderless layabout who wooed you with badly written poetry had, at one time, lived a rich and interesting life, sleeping his way through the East Village art scene in the 1980s. He hung out at Warhol’s Factory and Robert Rauschenberg made a sculpture out of his excrement. Suddenly, this unemployed, undemanding boyfriend, who spent most of his time watching television—and, in fact, died staring at the tube—begins to take on a new dimension. Now he seems more attractive, more captivating. For the first time, you start to fall in love with him.
As Mary begins to learn more about her recently deceased beau, Primo (John Corbett), My Dead Boyfriend’s narrative takes shape as a kind of low-key detective story, with Mary, a happy-go-lucky but aimless sort, bouncing around the late-’90s East Village, casually tracking down a series of comic grotesques to help unravel Primo’s bottomless mysteries. The film, then, is basically a slacker version of Citizen Kane, directed by Anthony Edwards, from a screenplay by Billy Morrissette, with a tone of amiable nonchalance, which is matched by Graham’s endearingly insouciant lead performance and a likable supporting cast that includes Gina Gershon, Katherine Moennig, and Griffin Dunne, all of whom turn in funny, slightly wistful performances.
The problem with slackers, though, is that they never see things through to the end, and thus it is with My Dead Boyfriend, which is often as aimless and half-motivated as Mary herself, amiably drifting by without quite getting anywhere. Just as the film seems to be building a multifaceted retrospective portrait of Primo, it begins to lose track of its central premise and never really finds its way back, shifting focus to Mary’s narrative of personal growth via a new romance, a revelation about her family, and renewed interests in playing music and writing. Rather than enhancing her character, these subplots reduce Mary to a set of problems to be fixed, while distracting from the more intriguing questions surrounding her posthumous affection for Primo.
Just as My Dead Boyfriend never maximizes on its compelling premise, it also fails to take advantage of its intriguing setting. Though the story makes detours into Lower Manhattan’s art, punk, and drag scenes before the turn of the millennium, the filmmakers offer only a cursory suggestion of this milieu, making little attempt to capture the creative atmosphere and artistic ferment of the time. In fact, a few Y2K references and D Generation flyers aside, the film could have been set almost anywhere, at any time. Providing a richer sense of the story’s environment could have grounded the characters in a particular social context, deepening them by historicizing their lives, but slacker that it is, My Dead Boyfriend never seems willing to put in the necessary work to live up to its potential.