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Sundance Institute

Little Death (2024)

Weird California strikes again in "Little Death," Los Angeles being the natural home of stories about scriptwriters strung out on drugs while cracking up, or of young adults on a night-time quest to find both stolen property and in a very real sense themselves. Director-cowriter Jack Begert finds house room for both those stories in one film, through the direct method of telling the first of them up to the halfway point and then following a dangling thread straight into the other. A TV series might do something similar for an episode; and Quentin Tarantino knits his characters together all the time with the kind of crime connection that happens here. But Mr. Begert does it bluntly, a suture. And he does it after a particular swerve in story number one that feels like he's improvising, riffing on themes that might cohere into something or might not.

David Schwimmer turns up his unlikability dial as Martin, frustrated writer of a body-swap TV sitcom who really wants to get a film script into production. Taking prescription pills in such quantities that the pharmacy should give him his own shelf, Martin moans in lengthy voiceover about his life, his failures, his self-loathing and his script, which looks well worth being unhappy about. He moans about partner, Jessica (Jena Malone), too, half-wishing that the mole on her neck turns cancerous. They are not really a believable couple, since Ms. Malone is an actor with titanium in her stare and no character of hers would put up with this kind of nonsense. Then the film studio tells Martin to change his script's protagonist from male to female so as to ride the cultural trends. In a sequence a bit like "Lost Highway" restaged for TikTok, Mr. Schwimmer is replaced by Gaby Hoffmann, who continues as the character as if nothing had changed, being referred to as Martin and addressed normally by everyone. It's not quite accurate to say this conceit doesn't work, since in fact it's got something for everyone. It's a sight gag based on Martin's body-swap show; a cultural satire (of a sort - speculate what the film would or would not have done if Martin had been told to change his character's ethnicity); a mind-bender for the audience; a transsexual resolution to a cis man's inner conflict. And it's not permanent, since an event occurs that swaps Martin back again as if jolted male, or hetero, or something.

Plot number two is about Karla (Talia Ryder) and A.J. (Dominic Fike), decent young people who happen to enjoy recreational drugs themselves, trying to recover their vehicle and belongings from small-time crooks of their acquaintance and not get shot in the process. A.J. is a bad boy with the glower and the aura and Karla could do better; but they stick together as Los Angeles shoves them around and various aggressive slackers make their night miserable. At one point A.J. receives an enthusiastic pitch for A.I.-generated art from a man who doesn't seem to have had any problems making money from it; and back in part one Martin's meltdown involved nightmares and fantasy sequences clearly rendered by the film in A.I. animation. So if Mr. Begert is riffing, A.I. is one of his tunes. These animations will strike you as novel or terrible or doggerel, depending; they look exactly like everyone else's A.I. animations right now, in any case. The film plays them and the advocate's pitch for the technology so straight that it might be mocking both the guy putting A.I. art out into the world and the other guy who has internalized it into his nightmares, neither of them apparently burdened with much vision beyond the nearest current thing. Darren Aronofsky gets a producer credit here, so thinking the film has an optimistic interpretation of this kind of cultural programming might be a mistake. But A.I.'s grumpy ambiguity and ambivalence, much like the film's for that matter, are right up Weird California's street.


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