Thursday, February 7, 2008

Over Her Dead Body: Dead on Arrival

Over Her Dead Body (2008) • View trailer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather needlessly, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08

Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria Parker must've been truly desperate to grab Over Her Dead Body as a bid for big-screen stardom.

On the other hand, maybe it was the best she could get.
Part-time psychic Ashley (Lake Bell, left), wanting to come clean with Henry
(Paul Rudd) — with whom she has begun a relationship — tries to explain
that she really can see and hear his dead fiancée, Kate (Eva Longoria Parker).
Oh, and Kate can make the parrot talk to Henry. And the parrot's a better
actor than Longoria.

Parker, since Day One the weak link on the popular (if erratic) TV show, can't act. Not a lick. She relies far too heavily on her God-given good looks, apparently believing that they'll conceal her stiff line readings and visible discomfort on camera. She stands awkwardly, displays little (if any) chemistry with anybody else sharing a given scene, and generally looks and sounds like a third-rate weather gal on a small-town local news operation.

But while it's tempting to blame Parker for the ills that infect Over Her Dead Body, she's in good company. Writer/director Jeff Lowell, making his feature directorial debut, is an impressively talentless hack. He shouldn't be allowed to direct traffic, let alone be left in charge of an entire motion picture; his camera set-ups and angles are uninspired, his pacing is dreadful and — most critically — he couldn't coax a credible performance from any of these actors if his life depended on it.

Indeed, Lowell manages the impressive task of making Jason Biggs, a lively cut-up generally completely at ease on camera, look awkward and lost.

As a screenwriter, Lowell's a thief; the premise to Over Her Dead Body is stolen shamelessly from the 1978 Brazilian sex comedy, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (or its 1982 American remake, Kiss Me Goodbye). But as Lowell's story progresses, it transforms into a blindingly blatant rip-off of Ghost ... so much so that viewers at last week's preview screening audibly proclaimed as much, long before the film concluded.

But perhaps the saddest part of this entire debacle is that Parker is upstaged easily by co-star Lake Bell, who has all the charm, presence, sexiness, physical grace and effortless chemistry that forever eludes our understandably Desperate Housewife.

And Parker doesn't seem to realize this, which makes the whole sorry mess even more tragic.

Some films betray their inherent awfulness almost immediately, and Over Her Dead Body is just such a film. Not even 30 seconds into this limp romantic comedy, while watching Parker's Kate lurch her way through lousy dialogue as a bitchy Bridezilla trying to micro-manage her wedding day, I knew this would be a thankless experience.

The sequence is staged horribly, and Kate's encounters with various caterers and the fellow who delivers her ice sculpture — Stephen Root, apparently intended to be drunk, but doing such a poor job that I couldn't be sure — are punctuated by line readings so wooden that I swear they could warp.

Then the essential plot contrivance strikes: The ice sculpture falls atop Kate and kills her ... a tragedy (blessing?) handled so poorly that we couldn't decide whether to laugh or be grateful that Parker had stopped talking, if only briefly.

Regaining consciousness in a white purgatory lifted from Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait, Kate ticks off her guardian angel and winds up back on Earth, now a ghost, with no idea why she has been sent back to our mortal plain. She eventually decides that her "assignment" is to watch over former fiancé Henry (Paul Rudd, a total blank slate), a veterinarian who has put his life on hold following the accident.

Henry's sister, Chloe (Lindsay Sloane, reasonably cute), wants her brother to move on; she therefore decides that he needs (ahem) permission from Kate's spirit to resume life, and convinces him to see a part-time psychic, Ashley (Bell), who also works as a caterer with gay best friend Dan (Biggs).

This film never seems to decide whether Ashley actually has psychic powers; the few efforts we see all fall flat. True, she does become the only living person who can see and hear Kate, but I'm not sure that's enough on which to hang a career as a spiritualist.

Although reluctant to intrude on Henry's grief — particularly when "helping" involves deceptively utilizing information gleaned from Kate's diary, sneakily provided by Chloe — Ashley succumbs to her new client's charm (whatever!) and quickly becomes interested in him herself. This enrages Kate, who has decided that "watching over" Henry translates to "ensure that he never dates again"; she then decides to haunt Ashley and make her life miserable.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Aside from Lowell's inefficiencies as a storyteller, this film makes the usual mistake relating to such ghost stories: The immaterial Kate passes through people and cannot handle objects, yet seems to have no trouble sitting on chairs or beds, or indeed walking on floors. But carping about that small detail, with so much else going wrong, really is missing the forest for the trees.

Bell, thankfully, is an irrepressible force of nature; she alone is responsible for this film's bump from one to two stars. Kate is absent from most of the film's first act, while Henry and Ashley are getting to know each other, and it's almost possible to forget Parker and hitch our emotions to the fledgling relationship unfolding before our eyes.


Rudd doesn't bring much to the party, and Parker eventually returns and destroys the momentum of what remains.

Biggs has a thankless role, the ill-conceived idiocy of which doesn't become completely clear until a "startling" revelation in the final act. This, like everything else in the film, is handled about as badly as could be imagined. I wouldn't be surprised if gay activists started picketing Lowell's home and office.

Movie marketing never fails to astonish; I can't imagine why New Line Cinema would have wasted a dime on releasing or publicizing this dog. Did they really think Parker's presence would sell it? For that matter, the numbnuts who green-lighted Lowell's script should be fired; ditto for whoever allowed him to direct.

And I dearly hope it's the last time we see a movie with Lowell's name attached to the credits.

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