NYFF Review: “The Dead Man and Being Happy”

José Sacristán stars in Javier Rebollo's "The Dead Man and Being Happy"Few things are more irritating than a movie that’s full of itself, a characterization that undoubtedly applies to Javier Rebollo’s “The Dead Man and Being Happy.” Sympathetic lead performances and pretty Argentinian locations help alleviate the aggravation of the experience, but the film’s smug self-satisfaction with its own quirkiness is ultimately irredeemable.

The titular “dead man” is Santos (José Sacristán), a septuagenarian, cancer-bedraggled former hit-man who abandons his hospital bed in order to die on his own terms, making off with a stash of morphine to nurse his addiction over a road-trip. On this journey, Santos meets Erika (Roxana Blanco), a forty-ish woman running away from her past. They develop a kinship through Erika’s enabling of Santos’ addiction and the realization that both have nothing to live for but each other.

Co-writer/director Rebollo’s employment of incessant, literal narration is the most baleful agent of the film’s assault of smugness. A nameless woman (and sometimes a man, for no discernible reason) commentates over nearly everything that happens onscreen, either to straightforwardly describe what the audience can already see or to tell them how to feel about it. The narration’s often deadpan tone proves occasionally funny–presumably, Rebollo’s intent was to amuse with irony–but it mostly just comes across as suffocatingly cutesy. “The Dead Man and Being Happy” could have used a few contemplative moments, given the melancholy nature of the story, but these are forsaken in favor of an endless stream of talking. Enduring the narration–and, transitively, the film as a whole–is like being a room with someone who incorrectly believes that they are funny, and therefore won’t shut the hell up.

Rebollo’s stylistic overkill with the narration verges on condescending when one considers how comparatively little attention the filmmaker devotes to storytelling and character development. After introducing the main duo’s respective dark pasts, Rebollo leaves Erika an enigma and paints Santos as a schlub who feels more or less neutral about the murders he carried out. Not every movie requires dramatic character transformations, but Rebollo needed to explore these people in more detail to compensate for his narrative’s lack of eventfulness. Santos and Erika spend an awful lot of time driving before ultimately turning in for the night at a hotel — over and over again. If it weren’t for Sacristán and Blanco’s humanizing performances, these plodding stretches would be unwatchable. That is, if they aren’t already — especially when Rebollo attempts profundity via ham-fisted symbolism, like black dogs representing death.

I should have known to escape the New York Film Festival screening of “The Dead Man and Being Happy” when Rebollo introduced the film by remarking about how “funny and great” it is. That kind of self-satisfied comment is never uttered by the maker of a good movie, because good movie are able to tell the audience how funny and great they are all by themselves.