There are films you want to like, but don't. The opposite is even more rare: Films you don't want to like, but do. The Darwin Awards, the new film by Finn Taylor, is one of the latter. It's episodic, scattershot, uneven and lurches about in the most ungainly fashion imaginable … but at the same time, there are flashes of weird, off-kilter humor in it. Put bluntly? It's a train wreck, but there are some interesting bits and pieces in the wreckage. …
San Francisco Police Department homicide profile Joseph Fiennes has a steady eye and a jumpy stomach. He can look at a crime scene and find amazing clues that lead to the killer … but the sight of blood makes him faint. His mixture of genius and tics mean that he catches – and then loses – the North Beach Killer, and with a student documentary filmmaker trailing his every move, the embarrassing flub is public knowledge. Washed-up, thrown off the force and depressed, he retreats into his obsession: The internet-spread, quasi-urban legends known as The Darwin Awards, people who commit errors in judgment so severe they're removed from the gene pool by them permanently. Fiennes has the idea to take his research into the private sector – by finding Darwin contenders both pre- and post-mortem and using that understanding to save money for a large insurance company.
(More after the jump. ...) This all happens within the first 15 minutes, and already The Darwin Awards is ranging far and wide – is this a corporate satire? A mystery? An existential comedy about the nature of random life and human existence? Or, as insurance investigator Winona Ryder is assigned to work with Fiennes as he tests his theories, a wacky buddy-road-romance movie? A sideways look at moviemaking as the student documentarian known only as 'numb-nuts' tags along for the ride? Or is it just a random series of slapstick vignettes with fatal finales and a cast of cameo-ing indie stars like Robin Tunney, John Doe, Judah Friedlander, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Metallica and more?
I don't know; what's more damning is that I think Taylor doesn't, either. As Fiennes and Ryder travel the nation's back roads casing out possible Darwin cases to prove his theories, they learn from each other and grow closer – but the film doesn't descend into cliché, or if it does, it's only dropping by briefly to mock the conventions we've come to expect. Taylor's films have always cajoled and charmed viewers more than they've made a overwhelming assault on our funny bones, and Fiennes's quirky, bottled-in defective detective is an agreeable lead; frankly, his work in character is what, essentially, makes the film an agreeable time-waster as opposed to a simple waste. The Darwin Awards may be lumpy, bumpy and unwell, but there's a certain hybrid vigor in its madcap mix of sideways comedy, romance and socio-biological theory that gives it a curious amount of life.
Others on The Darwin Awards: Variety's Dennis Harvey found it fairly awful, concluding that "Topliners Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder sink along with a boatload of name [actors] wasted in fleeting, unfunny support parts." David D'Arcy was even harsher, writing at GreenCine Daily that "The only reason that the makers of this film aren't in consideration for [Darwin Awards] is that they're still alive." OUCH.