In 2006, writer and director Finn Taylor brought us The Darwin Awards, a black comedy based on the popular website of the same name, which recognizes those members of the human race who, through a lack of brain cells and abundance of alcohol levels, improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it, usually in creative and embarrassing ways. A tribute to those famous last words, "Hey guys, hold my beer and check this out."
Like the businessman who decides to test how shatter-proof the windows of his office penthouse are. Or the other businessman who, despite pulling a six-figure income, tries to steal a packet of biscuits from a vending machine, and ends up paying a much higher price. For most of us, these are bizarre stories and legends to be shared with friends. For Michael Burrows (Joseph Fiennes), the hitherto best criminal profiler in the San Francisco Police Department, they become an obsession, after his hematophobia lets a serial killer slip away. Burrows' uncanny observational powers lead him to offer his services to an insurance company, promising that he can ferret out fraudulent insurance claims and detect seemingly normal people who are likely to unintentionally kill themselves before they're sold insurance. He deduces that the insurance executive who's interviewing him is having an affair, and says he can save the company over $20 million a year.
Now that's what I call a job interview.
Burrows is partnered with Siri Taylor (Winona Ryder), a profane insurance specialist who investigates "bizarre" insurance claims. Initially skeptical of his theories, she grudgingly comes around when he solves the puzzles they encounter: the man who claim some bad men from the city stole his new SUV; the mysterious case of the car accident, with no car and no body. Burrows thinks there's something that links all these disparate cases and people. Taylor sees a much more jaded and cynical solution. Amid driving cross-country to investigate how a rich foreign couple crashed their RV into a dentist's office and how two stoners broke their way into a Metallica concert, Burrows is tormented by the serial killer who indirectly led to his dismissal from the police force, who continues his reign of terror. Taylor makes an observation of her own: Burrows is becoming one of the Darwin cases he has dedicated his life to preventing.
There is an entertaining story in The Darwin Awards - who of us doesn't feel a little schadenfreude at the story of the driver and passenger who decide to switch seats, with their car going at 60 mph? Where the movie suffers is how formulaic it gets. Fiennes is fine (sorry) as a big-screen version of Adrian Monk (from the titular TV series) and Ben Stiller's character in Along Came Polly - a smart, nice guy who is trapped by his own neuroses, waiting for an angel to come along and save him from himself. For Jennifer Anniston, here we have Winona Ryder, Dana Scully to Fiennes' Fox Mulder. The actors are good in these roles, but there's nothing original about the characters. I'm not sure that the romance they develop really goes anywhere. There is a good moment when Burrows misinterprets the initial one-night stand between him and Taylor, and things might have been more interesting if the flawed hero didn't get the girl in the end. But he did, for no reason I can see. Does Burrows become more relaxed and carefree? Does Taylor become more conscious of the inherent risks in everyday life ? We never know.
The serial killer story makes sense in the first part of the movie (although what police department would hire someone who faints at the sight of blood?), but seems tacked on for the rest of the story, only existing in the final act to provide Burrows with his moment of redemption. Did that plot have anything to do with the theme of what the Darwin Awards are about? Beats me. Tim Blake Nelson is alright as the smarmy, cocky murderer, but please let's not have a killer who sees fit to quote literary passages as his death hurtles towards him. Christopher Plummer did it well in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. Here, not so much.
And that's really the problem at the heart of The Darwin Awards. The story of the guy who tried to impress his girlfriend by strapping a rocket engine to his car, that's interesting. Burrows suspending himself upside-down in his shower, to be freed by a giggling Taylor is something you'd expect to see in a romantic comedy, not a cynical chronicling of the foibles of human nature. If Taylor had concentrated on the former, and not the latter, we'd have a better movie on our hands. That said, there's enough in The Darwin Awards to make it entertaining, and it's hard to go wrong with a Metallica cameo. 3.5/5.0