I guess with death on the brain, it's only appropriate that I would pick today to watch LIFE AFTER DEATH, the new direct-to-DVD movie based on the TV series "Dead Like Me." Created by Bryan Fuller ("Pushing Daisies," "Wonderfalls," now "Heroes"), "Dead Like Me" came along at just the right time for me. I was going through a lot of personal changes in my life, and the story about a character who finds a renewed life after death as a grim reaper was something I could really relate to in a weird way (Coming just a couple of years after September 11th, the death theme was challenging and timely). I related to the character, not just her personal upheaval, but her disaffected yet ultimately compassionate attitude towards the world, cynical, yet nuanced. Bored, but only because she didn't really know what to do with herself, in no small part out of fear, fear of life, even in death, fear of failure and rejection, but also of success and acceptance. Fuck, I still feel that way most of the time, as in, like, all of the time...
"Dead Like Me" was not only very funny, but it featured a compelling ensemble cast- Ellie Muth as the living dead girl, Mandy Patinkin as her reaper boss, Jasmine Guy, Laura Harris and Callum Blue as her fellow reapers, Cynthia Stephenson and Britt McKillip as the mother and sister left behind, Christine Willies as the boss at her day job (yes, even in death, you need a day job). The show was cancelled after two seasons and ended kind of abruptly, as storylines were brought to relative conclusion clearly much quicker than the series' creators originally intended. Now, about five years later, this film, from the director of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and two of the series' original writers, is intended to wrap it all up a bit more neatly.
For the most part, it doesn't. Which isn't to say that "Life After Death" is bad, but something is definitely missing, some of the specialness and most of the wit of the series just isn't there, probably owing to the fact that Fuller didn't work on the film. Also, Patinkin and Harris aren't around, and there presence is sorely missed. Harris' character, Daisy Adaire, is played by another actress, Sarah Wynter, who just doesn't bring anything to the part. As played by Harris (obviously, I'm a bit smitten), Daisy was both delicate and crude, conniving yet compassionate. Wynter doesn't bring any nuance or delicacy to the role, she fails to make much of an impression one way or another. Meanwhile, Jasmine Guy and Callum Blue, both great on the series and good here, aren't given enough to do, or much of anything to do. They're sort of pantomiming their old characters, the material they're given to worth with simply isn't as good as on the series, and the whole sublot with their's and Wynter's characters first falling for the charms of, then turning on their new boss isn't handled very well. The idea is great, that they're sort of allowed to do anything they want, intially believing that because they're dead there won't be any consequences, then suddenly realizing they've been manipulated and striking back, but it's a TV season's worth of story crammed into an hour and twenty minutes worth of film. It's like all the good bits have been taken out and all were left with is a poorly-paced sequence of scenes that give you the gist of the story, but not the actual meat.
On the plus side, the subplot about George reconnecting with her still-living, now teenaged sister will be, I think, satisfying for those who watched the show, at least it was for me. George's relationship with her family was significant plotline on the series, she had grown emotionally distant from them at the time of her death, and couldn't contact them postmortem, so she was forced to observe them from afar without much interaction. Meanwhile, the mother and sister's passage of mourning was portrayed throughout, we got to see everything happening from both sides. The film provides a bit of resolution in regards to the sisters' relationship (though, oddly, not with the mother), and it works, but, again, it happens too quickly, without much chance for the really dramatic implications of the living sister discovering that the living dead dead sister is still alive, sort of. Again, it's a tv season's worth of material in feature length format, we get more of a sense of what is happening than we actually get to experience it, and though it ultimately works, it's not as strong as it could or should have been.
The whole of LIFE AFTER DEATH is, in fact, not as strong as it could have been. For some reason, the material has been considerably toned down from the series, in which profanity played a fairly significant role, particularly with Muth, Guy and Patinkin's characters. It wasn't just bad langauge for it's own sake (as on many other cable shows, particularly on Showtime, which originally aired "Dead Like Me"), but rather it was woven realistically within their dialogue- this is the way those characters spoke, there was a rhythm to it (as well as a certain novelty of seeing Jasmine Guy of "A Different World" as an embittered, foulmouthed living-dead meter maid). The dialogue was very stylized, but in it there was a strong understanding of the way people really talk, how they communicate with one another and express themselves individually. The movie simply lacks that. The acting is mostly good, but the dialogue is mostly unmemorable, uninspired.
Uninspired, in fact, might be a good summation for LIFE AFTER DEATH. It seems like something that was more thrown together than was concieved as a fitting end for the program, or as a labor of love for it's creators. Though it's certainly better than mere Product, a quick cash-in off a modestly fondly remembered brand, it's far from the tribute that an innovative, emotionally resonant series like "Dead Like Me" deserves. Having viewed it, I was left a bit depressed. It's like visiting with an old friend you haven't seen in a few years and finding they've become...kind of boring. You can still see the spark of what used to be behind their eyes, but the conversation is strained and uncomfortable and, ultimately, uninteresting.
There's going to be a panel on the movie at New York Comic Con this weekend, and I'll probably check it out, to see if I can gain any further insight, but as it stands, like, what the fuck? You've got the license to do something cool, you should do something cool and not just dick around and do it all half-assed. And why isn't Ellie Muth acting in more stuff? She's cute and very funny and she's got a cool, husky voice and great timing (again, I'm smitten). Oh well...DEAD LIKE ME- LIFE AFTER DEATH comes out on DVD this month, on the 17th, so I guess you can find out for yourself whether it should have been left in the grave or not...