Park City has suicidal tendencies

Staple indie theme again at forefront of Sundance

A weekend of slow Sundance sales might not be enough to drive film executives to thoughts of suicide, but several films they're watching could. More than 15 entries at this year's festival have characters contemplating, attempting or actually killing themselves.

Right off the bat, Sundance presented two films centered on suicidal hitmen: Martin McDonagh's opening-night film "In Bruges," starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, and actor-director Michael Keaton's Friday premiere "The Merry Gentleman."

Geoff Haley's "The Last Word" looks at a writer (Wes Bentley) whose business is drafting people's suicide notes, including one for a despondent Ray Romano. In "I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster," an already suicidal teenage girl tries to kill herself while being held hostage. And in "The Wackness," one character attempts to re-create James Mason's famous walk into the ocean in "A Star Is Born."

And those are just the funny films.

"Comedies with suicide are just a phenomenon this year," director of programming John Cooper said. "In 'Birds of America,' one of the brothers once attempted suicide. His siblings are always saying they should check up on him to see if he committed suicide. It's all very matter-of-fact with deadpan humor."

In Barry Levinson's Hollywood tale "What Just Happened?" an agent's suicide is played for laughs. Cooper also pointed to slapstick used in "Gentleman" (a character falls backwards while standing on a ledge), "Bruges" (an assassin tries to prevent his intended target's suicide) and "Gangster" (a botched hanging).

Killing oneself might be a popular idea among this year's crop of emerging artists, but it is not altogether new. "Every year, the programmers post a list of the number of films with suicide in them, and it's always the biggest list of all the themes," festival director Geoff Gilmore said, acknowledging the gallows humor in his programming department. "Talk about a staple of independent cinema."

But why do so many of this year's death-obsessed films also contain humor? "I think a lot of filmmakers are depressed, but they're responding to it in different ways, not just by trying to solve the world's problems," Gilmore said. And as a result, suicide — if not exactly painless, as the song goes — is a lot easier to watch. "What's different is that in most cases the characters recover or take another path," he said.

Suicide comedies are becoming a growing subgenre, tracing their lineage through the 2006 Sundance debut "Wristcutters: A Love Story" to director-star Burt Reynolds' underrated 1978 film "The End" and Blake Edwards' 1981 film "S.O.B.," in which a Hollywood executive's frequent suicide attempts echo this year's slapstick scenes.

And lest anyone forget, one of the most popular and uplifting films of all time, "It's a Wonderful Life," started with a man about to jump off a bridge.

The bottom line for film execs is how such a downbeat subject plays at the boxoffice.

Despite great reviews and a clever, controversial marketing campaign featuring figures on caution signs committing suicide, "Wristcutters" grossed just a little more than $350,000. On the other hand, Steve Carell's suicidal character didn't scare audiences away from "Little Miss Sunshine," which took in nearly $60 million domestically.

Whether the indie world's current fascination with suicide hits a dead end will depend on the eventual life — or boxoffice death — of such films as "King of Ping Pong" (which includes another attempted suicide), "Momma's Man" (in which the lead character bizarrely throws himself down a flight of stairs) or "Henry Poole Is Here" (which follows a very ill character who wants to drink himself to death).

Perhaps marketers could take a lesson from the famous National Lampoon magazine cover that threatened, "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog."

If you don't see these films, an indie filmmaker could kill himself — metaphorically, at least.
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