Ben, a well-meaning but naive sobriety coach, is tasked with helping washed-up star James McCann stay on the straight and narrow during an important film shoot. He also has to help James learn his lines, and keep him from having an affair with his co-star Emily.
James proves harder to handle than Ben initially thought. He’s capricious and sometimes cruel, and still manages to remain inebriated most of time, despite Ben’s efforts. The self-destructive actor causes havoc wherever he goes, taking particular pleasure in baiting sincere, altruistic Ben whenever he can. But when Emily appears to make sure James delivers on the last day — adding yet another combustible personality to the mix — Ben begins to see just how out of his depth he really is.
Director Freddie Hall, along with writer D. C. Jackson, has crafted an acerbic, astringent comedy fueled less by antics and broad jests and more by wit, character and sharply timed comic performance. Its sensibility is sophisticated and resolutely grown-up, with an eye on how clashing personalities navigate around one another, often jockeying for power or simply some kind of stability.
The aesthetic also announces the film’s sophistication, with a cool, gleaming sense of color and light that takes full advantage of its striking, modernist setting. The camerawork is just as elegant, moving fluidly around this small hive of characters.
In many ways, the film is shot like a drama, but the story itself is played for a dark, rueful irony. Its performances are all around excellent, grounded in realistic emotions but expressed in ways that highlight each character’s neuroses.
The film’s strengths begin in the writing, which richly but quickly sets up each character with an eye for detail and specificity, particularly in how they speak. Craig Parkinson plays the troubled actor with a sense of lost grandeur, more like a louche rock star at heart than anything — but one beginning to recognize he’s strayed in life and is now facing consequences. The sobriety coach is played excellently by Jonny Sweet as the straight man, often sounding like he’s quoting a self-help book. And the irate film co-star is played by Susan Lynch with equal parts profanity, power and bluster, but not without vulnerability and sadness.
At heart “Dead to the World” is a character-driven dark comedy with an eye on how we self-sabotage ourselves in life — and the role that delusion plays in our own foibles and mistakes. While its vein of smart, witty comedy focuses on the sharp-edged interplay of opposite personalities, it offers some insight on just how hard it is try to better one’s self in the midst of life’s pressures and disappointments. It’s likely that we’ll get in our own ways again and again as entrenched behavior patterns reassert themselves. But as some of the characters discover, grace may come in the strangest of places — though it may take time to truly see those moments for what they are.