David Schwimmer makes a bold choice with this ambitious, if not entirely seamless psychodrama. Starting out as a hyperactive life-in-crisis movie, like a more melancholy, introspective Fight Club, it swaps horses in midstream with a shocking twist that will likely alienate any viewers seduced by seeing the Friends star’s face on its promo imagery. Those willing to follow first-time director Jack Begert down the rabbit hole into the film’s surprising second half — which may seem completely unrelated at first, but soon reveals the film’s deeper themes of opioid use and the butterfly effects of addiction — will find it strangely satisfying.
In light of recent events involving Schwimmer’s former co-star Matthew Perry, Begert’s film has acquired an unintentionally meta level that, sadly, only underscores its main theme, which is the human cost of the pursuit of happiness in contemporary America. Schwimmer plays Martin Solomon, a screenwriter on the verge of directing his first independent movie and in the early stages of a nervous breakdown. In voiceover, Martin recalls how he was used in a psychological experiment as a boy and forced to stand next to fridgeful of missing-child milk cartons with his face on them. No one noticed for six hours, forcing him to wonder, “Was it cosmic indifference? Or was it me that wasn’t worth it?”
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Martin’s struggle is a familiar one, trying to make high art in a town where “85% of Uber drivers aspire to be famous”. Believing himself to be a hack, with just 11 seasons of a body swap sitcom as his legacy, Martin thinks his feature film will be his salvation. The film’s main financier threatens that by laying down some conditions, chief of which is that Martin’s pale, stale male protagonist must be replaced by a woman (this actually happens in the movie when, in a very funny, Buñuelian flourish, Martin is played for a time, without any comment, by Gaby Hoffmann). Things seem to be looking up again when, after regularly dreaming about a beautiful woman in his creepy, AI-generated dreams, Martin actually meets her in a bookstore and takes her number.
Hollywood yet again plays itself here; Martin is a writer who, in the capital of the creative world, struggles to express himself or make himself heard (“Can we forget the pills and the dream analysis?” he begs his shrink. “Can we just talk?”). There’s a sense of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil here, especially when Martin finds himself at war with the new woke bureaucracy that is threatening the integrity of his script (“People would rather be called a bigot than a pedophile in this town,” he snaps). Meanwhile, his wife Jess (Jena Malone) is planning a holiday to Costa Rica, but Martin thinks this is a bad time to abandon the fort.
Where this all goes next is a big surprise, a surprise that would have been even bigger if Bertrand Bonello hadn’t recently done something very similar with his 2023 Venice competitor The Beast. David Lynch’s Lost Highway is an obvious precursor, but Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a far better example of the film’s radical bait-and-switch. Suddenly we have a new storyline to follow, introducing a much younger cast, and Little Death switches down a gear from the sensory overload of its opening.
It takes a little while to adapt to this new tempo, which segues from the ‘respectable’ world of prescription drugs to the street market where anything goes. Darren Aronofsky lends his weight to Begert’s film as producer, and it’s not hard to see echoes of his own Requiem for a Dream (2000), which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nomination for her role as an elderly housewife speed freak.
Begert’s film is largely its own creature, however, making it a deserved winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award. It will be interesting to see what he does next, since the film’s kinetic first half suggests a restless imagination that’s entirely at odds with the sleek, pragmatic second. That they meet in the middle is a strange kind of alchemy, albeit one that is unlikely to appeal to a mainstream audience. Little Death will surely be as divisive as Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid — and just as perversely refreshing in its very determined oddness.
Title: Little Death
Section: Sundance (Next)
Sales Agent: CAA/UTA
Director: Jack Begert
Screenwriters: Jack Begert, Dani Goffstein
Cast: David Schwimmer, Jena Malone, Gaby Hoffman, Talia Ryder, Sante Bentivoglio
Running time: 1 hr 50 min
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