The Good: Funny, Well-acted, Interesting character work
The Bad: Absence and recasting of notable characters, Repeats/neglects what was in the series
The Basics: In a razor-thin "recommend," Dead Like Me: Life After Death gives fans a better closing to the series than the abrupt end it previously had.
[NOTE: The opening to this is dated from when the review was originally written and I left it unaltered. Enjoy!]
Yesterday, a dream of mine for the past two years came through and Dead Like Me: Life After Death made its debut on DVD. For two years, I have awaited this DVD, though, honestly, I had been looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. Two years ago at a Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ellen Muth, the star of Dead Like Me had a table and she was signing autographs. There, she unfurled a banner for Dead Like Me: The Movie and fans like me were all atwitter! Last year, Muth was back at the same convention and when I met her outside while she was on a cigarette break from her autograph signing, she revealed that the movie had been pushed to DVD-only release and I was somewhat bummed out.
Still, having been a fan of the two seasons of Dead Like Me (reviewed here!), I eagerly awaited the release of the movie even on DVD. Having now seen the 87 minute film, I can see why the studio opted for a DVD-only release and not the full cinematic release. Despite what the producers say in the lone featurette on the disc, Life After Death does not tell a story that is bigger than the series was. The idea of a canceled series using the big screen to continue its story is not a new one; a few years back, Joss Whedon's army of Browncoats came together and got Serenity (reviewed here!) made to finish off the story of their beloved, prematurely executed television show and there is even talk now of an Arrested Development movie. But Dead Like Me is an odd choice to try to make the leap and with Life After Death they might have dodged a box-office bullet (aimed with a kill-shot) by releasing it on DVD only.
Five years after her death, George (Georgia, actually) Lass continues her work as a Grim Reaper taking the souls of the soon-to-be dead when her world is turned upside down. Der Waffle Haus has burned down and Rube, her boss since her death, has moved on to his next plane of existence. After a brief period to take this in, George and her fellow Reapers, Mason, Roxy and Daisy are whisked away to meet their new boss, Cameron. Cameron does not care about reaping as much as he wants to make money on the stock market and he outfits his reapers with handheld computers with their assignments and sends them out into the world.
But soon, chaos descends when George's reap is both a soul not close enough to death to take and the secret boyfriend of her younger sister, Reggie. As Mason takes to robbing, Daisy has a disastrous theatrical debut and even Roxy explores the apparent lack of consequences by saving the life of the man she was supposed to reap, George keeps it together by trying to do her job. But when she encounters her sister and is forced to reveal who she is to her, the consequences quickly begin to mount. While George tries to prepare Reggie for the death of her boyfriend while juggling her Happy Time boss Delores wrestles with the impending death of her beloved cat Murray, Roxy and the others stage a coup on Cameron to set some order back to those working in the afterdeath.
Dead Like Me: Life After Death has a big problem as a straight-to-DVD release that it might not have had had it been a theatrical release film, which is that it does not cater enough to fans of the television series. So, for example, the emotional impact of Rube's disappearance is absent for those who were not in love with the television series. As well, because the film begins as a comic strip to set up the premise, that audience could probably deal with the fact that the comic strip version of Rube bears no resemblance at all to Mandy Patinkin (who played him in the series). But more than that, a film audience would appreciate the repetition. The first five minutes of the movie is essentially a recap of the television show Dead Like Me and offers no new information to the viewer.
As well, Life After Death reuses footage of the primary characters that was shot in the television series to illustrate how each one originally met their demise. This is all fairly boring and repetitive to the fans of the television series and one must figure that if one is watching this film, then they saw and recall the series. They might not remember one of the most troubling gaffs in the film, though, which comes when Reggie references George as Millie, who works at Happy Time to her mother, a meeting that actually occurred within the series and Joy's lack of memory of in the film is preposterous and troubling.
That said, the basic premise of the film is decent, if a problematic recasting of events from the television series. Rube's absence and Cameron's nonchalant attitude is what sets off the apathy in the reapers. But Roxy's defection to this and George's makes little sense because both had seen the effects of souls rotting in their bodies in the series. In fact, one of the first episodes of Dead Like Me dealt with George trying to neglect her duty as a Reaper and the consequences were pretty well-documented. In other words, it was not just Rube's word that kept his reapers in line, it was their experiences with the deaths that led them to understand that he was right.
Still, the film is funny and it is hard to see how it appeared on DVD with an "R" rating. The language is more prevalent than nudity or anything else, but perhaps that is enough. Come to think of it, the f-word is said more than twice, so that might have done it. Outside the reaper's gone wild storyline, the movie is strong on character, especially as George and Reggie come together. What Dead Like Me: Life After Death does especially well is progress the Reggie character and actually forward some of the living characters in interesting ways.
For example, Joy Lass, George's mother, is much more emotionally solid and is riding high on having published a successful self-help book on loss and death. Reggie has grown up and the five years put her in a position where she is not bratty, but realistically experimental and having seen her last as a kid, it is pretty creepy to see her having her first sexual experiences in the movie. Even Delores has a reasonable arc with Murray rapidly progressing toward death and it is the living human moments that are the tear-jerkers in this film.
On the acting front, the cast is mostly solid. Newcomers Henry Ian Cusick and Sarah Wynter join the cast as Cameron and the recast Daisy. Cusick, whose work I have loved since he became a regular on the third season of Lost (reviewed here!) illustrates that he is a powerfully good actor by portraying a character I absolutely hated. Yes, Cusick, who is one of the reasons I eagerly turn on Lost each week, made me want to turn off Life After Death! Wynter adequately steps into the unchallenging role of Daisy.
The remainder of the cast is given the task of simply recreating their earlier performances from the television series and Callum Blue, Cynthia Stevenson, Jasmine Guy, and Christine Willes each do this expertly. Guy, for example, appears as if she has walked back onto the set the next day after the television series had ended and she picks the role up effortlessly. Britt McKillip, who plays Reggie, is given perhaps the most difficult task. She must play a character that is recognizably Reggie but illustrate some growth from the past four years and she nails it. McKillip's performance is possibly the best in the movie, removing the pout, but keeping the slouch of Reggie and making her a vital and interesting character.
Of course, most of the movie rests upon Ellen Muth and she is great as the responsible George. Driving throughout the movie, she illustrates a great sense of comic timing and she keeps the pace of the film moving while clearly playing George as a dead girl who has been stagnating. This is a great touch and Muth does wonderfully, especially in her scenes with Willes and McKillip.
But the movie is a tough sell to fans, who will feel like too much of the film is recap or already done and not likely to be appreciated by those who are not fans. On DVD it has a featurette wherein the cast and crew gush about returning to the Dead Like Me franchise and a commentary track that pretty much does the same thing. In other words, we all deserved more.
Still, as a fan . . . it's nice to see those who did show up come back and try to salvage the series.
For other television series' made movies, please check out my reviews of:
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
Babylon 5: The Movies
For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |