“Cleansing…but victorious” is how the lead protagonist of The Surrogate describes his first sexual experience. The former emotion comes close to describing the resonance of writer-director Ben Lewin’s film about the libidinal awakening of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a real-life polio-afflicted poet and journalist. Thanks to Hawkes’s fantastic performance as Mark and Lewin’s clever, nuanced dialogue, The Surrogate is an accomplished portrait of a resilient man that, through sex therapy, was able to experience something new and extraordinary.
Mark, a Catholic with all kinds of stereotypical faith-based hang-ups about sex, first starts thinking about doing it after he develops a crush on Amanda (Annika Marks), a pretty young woman who briefly serves as his caretaker and assistant. Mark’s temporarily crushed when Amanda doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, but after he starts to research an article about how the handicapped have sex, repressed passions are suddenly aroused within him. So after talking candidly with Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a conflicted by empathetic Catholic priest, Mark agrees to meet with Cheryl Greene (a frequently naked Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate that teaches Mark about his body and how to stimulate a woman’s body too.
It’s very refreshing to see Lewin’s film unostentatiously treat intercourse as a normal need that most people counterintuitively associate with taboos; Mark should be made to feel perfectly normal for wanting to be touched and to be loved physically. That said, The Surrogate’s charms are limited by its story’s parameters. Lewin’s film follows the beginning of Mark’s sexual activity and ends with his biological death, giving us a severely limited window into Mark’s world. He discovers just how important romantic physical contact can be. Then he bonds with women in ways that he never was theretofore able to. And then he dies.
So, based on The Surrogate’s plot, Mark is a very sensitive but repressed man who eventually learns how to have fun with his body and gets laid, too. It’s a simplistic story told with great tact and humor featuring a number of fantastic singular images, like that of Mark’s cat sitting on top of his empty iron lung, looking around for his absent master and friend. If only there was more to The Surrogate than ephemeral beauty.
John Dies at the End, writer-director Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Jason Pargin’s oft-spastic but thoughtful novel by the same name, is supremely disappointing. Granted, the film’s source material is a hard narrative to adapt since most of its intelligence and appeal stems from its many absurd tangents. But Coscarelli took out so much of the plot from Pargin’s novel that he rendered its story totally incoherent.
The most salient omission on Coscarelli’s part is protagonist David Wong’s preoccupation with waking up and realizing that he’s literally not the same guy he was when he fell asleep. That fear is the crux of Pargin’s novel, a horror-comedy that riffs on one of H.P. Lovecraft’s thematic preoccupations: that the most frightening things are the ones we find hardest to accept are true. Without it, this fitfully funny mess is just exhausting.
In three different introductory scenes, David (Chase Williamson), a young guy thrust into ridiculous circumstances, tells us what the world of John Dies at the End is all about. None of these sequences make sense since none of them are contextualized by David’s normal, dreary routine working at a shitty minimum-wage job, as is explained in Pargin’s book. David and his friend John’s (Rob Mayes) lives have been violently upended after they start taking a mysterious drug called the Soy Sauce, a living substance that allows anyone who ingests it to see and perceive things that normal people can’t. It’s also a gateway to another dimension. So when David starts to inadvertently take it, things start to get weird and it’s all thanks to an evil deity called Korrok, a Jamaican magician cum dealer named Robert Marley, and other playfully juvenile monsters.
In Coscarelli’s reprehensibly lazy adaptation, much of which is copied note-for-note from Pargin’s book, shit happens at a furious pace, and almost none of it is adequately explained. The handful of moments where Coscarelli tentatively tries to explain events are haphazardly thrown into the plot’s mix for added disorientation, like the film’s cryptic opening scene. In this sequence, David poses a riddle about whether or not an axe used to behead a zombie is in fact the same axe it originally was after having its axe-head and handle replaced. It’s a striking question that gets to the heart of Pargin’s novel: Are you yourself even when you’re not the person you thought you were? The plot points and narration needed to get that point across are totally absent from Coscarelli’s film, making one wonder if he was even trying to faithfully adapt Pargin’s book in the first place.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.