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Review: After.Life

Mar. 18, 2010by: Eric Walkuski

PLOT: A young woman named Anna Taylor crashes her car in the middle of a rainy night. She wakes to find herself on the slab of a kindly mortician named Deacon. Anna finds can't remember anything about the crash, and more importantly, finds she can't move. Deacon informs her bluntly that she's dead, and that he has a special gift that enables him to communicate with the dead... But is he telling the truth?

REVIEW: The problem with AFTER.LIFE is that it's too long. Like, by about sixty minutes. This is the sort of thing "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" or "Tales from the Crypt" used to do, masterfully, and AFTER.LIFE isn't up to the challenge of making it work as a feature film. There are appropriately eerie shots of lifelike corpses, paralyzed people, ghostly children, shiny scalpels, thick blood, foreboding coffins, flickering lights, and surreal hallways - and yet AFTER.LIFE feels like it's just spinning its wheels; churning toward a conclusion that would be so much more engaging if it hadn't taken so long to get to.

We begin with a morose young woman named Anna (Christina Ricci), who is in a passive, barely functional relationship with fledgling lawyer Paul (Justin Long, doing his wide-eyed thing). Anna is a barely-defined elementary school teacher; all we really know about her is that she keeps baby chicks in her classroom while weirdo kids are allowed to glare over them ominously. (Note to all teachers: don't f*cking do that.) Her personal life with Paul doesn't seem to have much promise, yet that doesn't stop him from planning on proposing to her. When a senseless (truly contrived) misunderstanding occurs at a dinner, Anna storms out and promptly gets into a horrific car crash, where she's presumed dead and shipped off to a funeral home. That'll teach her for not waiting for Justin Long to complete a sentence!

This being, ostensibly, a thriller, there's more to the tale than just Anna being meat on a tray. When she awakes, she's in the care of Eliot Deacon, played by Liam Neeson, who does calming menace better than anybody (he's the ideal person to inform you that you're dead, because he's so confidant and reasonable about everything). Deacon, as he tells it, is a man with a gift. Or a curse, depending on how Spider-Man you want to get about it. Deacon is able to communicate with the dead; he's their last contact before they pass through those pearly gates. He's the guy who helps convince the unwilling departed that their time is up, because evidently the dead need to let go of the living just as much as the living need to let go of the dead.

This is an immersing enough scenario... for a while. The central mystery - is Anna truly dead or is Deacon just a freak keeping her hostage in his funeral home? - is perfect fodder for a taut, creepy mystery. But that's not what AFTER.LIFE is. Instead, it meanders. It pretends to be something a bit more. It builds a boring, none-too-compelling relationship between Anna and Deacon, which never builds much momentum, leaving you cold; the rest concerns Paul's investigation into the matter. These could be two dueling storylines, fighting for our attention, but ultimately neither is intriguing enough to win our interest. (Also, there's a really odd kid lurking about, but he's not even worth getting into.)

Neeson's presence is the only thing that elevates the material. His soft-spoken undertaker is either a wicked psychopath or a tortured man. Because Neeson is so cool and composed, you're with him anytime he's on screen. But Ricci doesn't help things. She wanders through much of the film in a wide-eyed haze, delivering her lines in a boring monotone. Her character isn't sympathetic in the early going, so it's tough to get worked up about her one way or the other when she finds herself in her bizarre situation. She's really no match for Neeson, so you can't help but be ambivalent about her plight.

5/10
Extra Tidbit: AFTER.LIFE opens on APRIL 9th.

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