You’ve seen the premise in three dozen high-concept romantic comedies (or at least, in the trailers for those movies): A couple falls in love under false pretenses. The guy (or the girl) withholds a secret. It was all a bet. Or he’s not the man he says he is. Or he’s the guy who accidentally broke up your marriage. She finds out. She leaves him. And, usually at an airport or during a rain storm, he gives that speech at the end of the movie to win her back: “Yes, in the beginning, I pursued you because of a bet. But then, I really honestly fell in love with you, and I was just too scared to tell you the truth because I was afraid of losing you.” Hearts, kisses, roll the Train song over the bloopers and end credits, cue cash registers ringing.
But what if that secret wasn’t a bet? What if that secret was, “It was me who accidentally ran you over with my car, killing your fetus, and fled the scene, leaving you unconscious. And I just became friends with you because I felt guilty. But then I really fell in love with you, but I couldn’t tell you that I killed your unborn daughter because I was afraid of losing you!”
And just to add an extra level of creepiness, why don’t we pile on an unnecessary contrivance: Let’s say, when the big romantic speech is given, it’s been three or four weeks since the accident that killed the baby, and the eight-month dead fetus is still inside the mother’s womb.
That’s Deborah Chow’s The High Cost of Living in a nutshell. It’s a heinous goddamn film, and it’s not that it’s poorly directed. It’s not that the performances aren’t decent. It’s not even that the conversations are badly written. It’s not that it’s dumb. Or incompetently made. It’s that it’s a terrible fucking story. If David Mamet had written it; if David Fincher had directed it; and if Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had starred in it, it still would’ve been a terrible fucking movie because that story is unsalvageable. There’s nowhere good you can go with it, and that’s abundantly clear within the first ten minutes of the film when the man starts pursuing a psychologically traumatized woman who is walking around with a dead baby inside of her.
Zach Braff plays the lead, Henry Welles, in the Canadian low-budget drama, and I have no idea how get got involved. I imagine the conversation with his agent went something like this:
Zach Braff: Hey, it’s Zach Braff.
Zach Braff’s Agent: Who?
Braff: The guy from “Scrubs.”
Agent: Oh yeah! I thought you were dead.
Braff: Nope. Just taking some time off. Weighing my options. You got anything for me?
Agent: Ummm. Well, there is this script me and the fellas have been passing around, having a laugh. It’s like this anti-romantic comedy built within the framework of a conventional romantic comedy. Smart, right?
Braff: So, it’s satire?
Agent: Oh, no. Not at all. The writer/director is playing it completely straight. I don’t even think she realizes it’s like every other romantic comedy ever made, only it’s not funny, it’s painfully slow, and it’s deathly depressing. You’d be playing a drug dealer who accidentally mows over a pregnant lady and kills her unborn child …
Agent: And the morning after you leave her unconscious at the scene, you feel guilty about it, so you track her down at a bar, and the two of you end up falling in love. Then she finds out you killed her baby, and you have to win her back with a huge romantic gesture.
Braff: I’m not sure there’s a romantic gesture huge enough for that.
Agent: Don’t worry about that. We’ll figure it out in post-production. Oh, and here’s another wrinkle: The whole time you’re pursuing her, she’s still carrying around the dead baby inside of her.
Braff: So, it’s a horror movie?
Agent: Oh no. Not at all. It’s a straight romance.
Braff: How much does it pay?
Agent: $100 and free lodging in the best motel Canada has to offer, if you don’t mind a roommate.
Braff: I’ll take it!
Agent: Wait, I haven’t even told you the best part.
Agent: We’re going to release the movie in theaters in May 2011, but here’s the kicker: In order to whet the appetite of the masses, we’re going to release it on iTunes six months before the theatrical release. It’s part of our bold new, anti-marketing effort.
Braff: So, it’s like ironic marketing?
Agent: Oh no. Not at all. We just figured since most trailers give most of the movie away anyway, and people still go see it, we’d literally give the entire movie away on iTunes (for a fee) just to see if people still go see it in theaters.
Braff: Brilliant. Sign me up!
Agent: Fantastic! What was your name again?