Every so often, an overly confident filmmaker comes along to lighten the mood around taboos. There was Josh Lawson’s comedic approach to bizarre sexual fetishes in The Little Death, then Dave Schultz’s tasteless handling of suicide and death in Considering Love & Other Magic, and now Stephen Wallis with Defining Moments, an exhausting flume of individual stories dealing with heavy subject matter (like mental health) and the writer/director’s unbearably quirky perspective.
There’s a sub-plot about an elderly man making light of his inevitable death (featuring the late Burt Reynolds in his final role which, y’know, isn’t awkward at all), a quirky arc around an older, pregnant woman who is abandoned by her husband, another couple who are discovering their own eccentric miscommunication when it comes to expanding their family, a doctor who reacts outrageously to news of his developing dementia, and unbelievably milky melodrama around a depressed man’s numerous suicide attempts. The last sub-plot is in such poor taste, I started to believe Stephen Wallis had realized his mistake as a screenwriter and decided to lean so far into his bad decision, that he believed he could actually be rewarded for his audacity. How else do you explain a running gag where a suicidal man is shamed for shooting himself in the ears instead of hitting his target? His friends roll their eyes, the doctor yucks around, and the man wallows as he’s institutionalized and receives the same jostling from other patients (including comedian Ron James in a miscast extended cameo).
Except for the mention of Reynolds and James (to reference their star power), you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any character names. That’s because these aren’t characters – these are walking-n-talking plot devices. These are triggering topics that are meant to evoke the most basic reactions out of the audience as the movie lurches from chapter to chapter. The comedic writing doesn’t make this pill easier to swallow either. The jokes are totally inappropriate, and confirm the film’s complete lack of empathy and the production’s inability to make a good judgment call. A movie that serves as a better example would be the Oscar-winning dramedy Little Miss Sunshine. That movie proves that you can approach serious topics like mental health with eccentricity if the movie has fully-realized characters, considerate direction, and a clever script.
Yes, Defining Moments is Burt Reynolds’ final movie, but it’s not worth hanging on to that detail when Reynolds isn’t here to defend himself or why the movie captured his attention in the first place. Maybe he saw an intent in the screenplay that spoke to him before Wallis’ direction ruined it. This still stands, however, as a reflective opportunity for everyone else involved – a self-evaluation of one’s career if you will.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie