Fans of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and the novels of John Irving (particularly The World According to Garp) will find a kindred mindset in director Sol Tryon's exceptionally quirky The Living Wake. But any friend of independent comedy should revel in the absurdities springing forth from the mind of co-writer/star Mike O'Connell, the symptom-free victim of a vague, grave, and punctual disease, who submits a tour de force interpretation of gonzo resignation, tempered by quavering fear.
It's an understatement to say that K. Roth Binew (O'Connell) -- an almost-charming loudmouth, spawned from privilege but descended into madness -- is larger than life. Most grandiose portrayals fruitlessly strive for that condition, but O'Connell surpasses it, working in a style somewhere between mythic overacting and literate buffoonery, while occasionally penetrating through to bitterly touching. It's the kind of go-for-broke performance Jim Carrey might have given early in his career, but with more intellect and less mugging. O'Connell's work could carry this film through its winding path of final-day truth-seeking. But thanks to some nice details in a town that has slipped out of place and time, it doesn't have to. One of these is the perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg as Binew's faithful manservant and rickshaw chauffeur, Mills Joaquin, tirelessly devoted while serving as the sounding board for Binew's dapper lunacy. Mills is the poetic counterpoint to Binew's comically bleak existence, and his presence at Binew's side elevates Binew above the level of mere pitiable boor. During the climactic wake sequence -- timed as a countdown to his final minute of life -- the earthy cathedral serves as a final reminder of the fertile imagination on display, responsible for this fairy tale of gothic eccentricity. The Living Wake is the kind of whimsical material from which cult classics are built, and it has a happy excess of bigness.