Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Brief thoughts on The Discovery.

"I just don't know why we think it's gonna be different somewhere else", mulls Jason Segel as he notes mankind's habit of repeating mistakes on an endless loop. For within Charlie McDowell's The Discovery, the afterlife itself has been proven an indisputable fact, a fact that has caused the unfortunate side effect of mass daily suicides, and men and women seeming all too eager to greet death like an old friend. It's a premise that serves for the film's intriguing set-up, and quite a heady one full of interesting ideas, but can the ideas alone make the film?

The Discovery wastes no time in hopping directly into its core premise and themes, building its unique world with fascinating flashes of perspective, covering issues of mortality and existentialism with great gusto. All throughout the film, these daily deaths are looked upon almost like a normalcy, with suicide counters in the background dramatically rising like a McDonald's tally, people showing a casual disregard for their actions that could result in injury or worse, and Segel's character early on going on a tangent on how a patient of his treated brain cancer as "winning the lottery." It creates a very uneasy and utterly depressing atmosphere that makes it feel like the world is falling apart, one that should feel so detached from our reality that it shouldn't be credible. And yet at the same time, there is something about the film that does still feel tangible to our own.

Suicide rates and their prevention have been a particular hot topic in the last decade, and it's with those ideas that McDowell dives headfirst into his core issues of the act, and what drives a person to perform it. Largely the film is very interested in the ideas of self-worth or lackthereof, as well as our hang-ups on the past that we come to define and tear ourselves down with. Sometimes "It gets better" really is more easier said than done, and even as McDowell notes the tragedy of such an act, even he's well aware that the answers are nowhere near as cut or clean as inspiring words. It also says a lot about idolization and our sense of literal-thinking, with the discovery from Robert Redford's doctor Harbor bringing just as much chaos and sorrow, as it does comfort and acceptance with what comes after our lives end. It's a portrait of a world thrown for a loop that you could easily see taking place in our own should such a thing happen, relaying those meditations in heavy stream of consciousness thinking, which put it above your average indie movie.

It's also a well built film of character, if not necessarily as well built in their interactions. Jason Segel grounds lead character Will with a genuine and purposeful bitterness and hostility (mostly aimed at his father), but also a vulnerability and aimless broken soul underneath that anger, as he tries to make sense of the events surrounding him and struggling to create meaningful connections. On the other end is Rooney Mara as the more darkly thinking of the two, a closed-off and seemingly empty presence with a much more sardonic and mile-a-minute way of thinking compared to Will, grasping with the point of living if there's nothing to be happy for. The two characters are well-written and directed, but for a film that's mainly geared to be a love story, the unfortunate hindrance to the film is the fact that Segel and Mara, though talented actors both, don't share strong chemistry with each other, feeling mismatched despite the film's best efforts to sell their kindred spirits.

Less engaging is the subject of Will's scorn, his long-absent and work obsessed father, played by Robert Redford. These sections featuring him are some of the least interesting segments of the film, relying on a number of obvious and contrived cliches that the film doesn't succeed at legitimizing, but more importantly the film can't figure out what opinion it takes of Redford. At some points he's a visionary but tragic figure, while at others he feels more in line with a classic mad scientist, resulting in complete tonal whiplash. As interesting as the film's themes are as well, the final fifteen minutes almost manage to completely undermine their impact, unleashing a series of last minute twists that the filmmakers could have made clever work of, but instead feel like direct contradictions to some of those earlier themes, and veers a bit too far into sentimentality and tidy ends in addition.

All in all, there's quite a bit of good about The Discovery for those who go looking, but the execution never matches those hefty ambitions it sets out for itself.

**1/2 / *****

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