CATEGORIES Comedy, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
The first ten minutes are the funniest part of Live Free or Die, a comedy about one of the dumbest criminals ever. In the opening sequence, we see Rugged (Aaron Stanford) stealing quarters out of a paper stand-up for charity, pocketing a pack of rebate coupons for vodka and then covertly ripping bar codes of the backs of the bottles, and trying to sell "stolen" speakers out of the back of his van (it turns out he buys the speakers himself, but figures people will pay more for hot goods). I couldn't stop laughing.
Unfortunately, Live Free or Die doesn't sustain the goofy momentum of the opening sequence. The story sets up Rugged as a legendary criminal, the New Hampshire equivalent of Clyde Barrow, and flashes back to show how he earned that reputation. He teams up with his old clam-shack coworker Lagrand (Paul Schneider), who never seems to have a grasp of what's going on. Most of their crimes are inadvertent, and of course nothing goes the way Rugged plans. The film's humor chiefly rests in Rugged being such a completely dumb criminal as well as a coward: when he's harassed at a bar, he decides to retaliate by pouring brake fluid in the guy's water supply. He doesn't realize that brake fluid can kill someone if ingested ... when he finds out, he buys a half-dozen bottles of vinegar and sneaks back to the house to try to counteract the potential effect. Rugged boasts that he was behind a recent lurid decapitation crime, but the audience realizes right away that either he's lying or some spectacular accident had to have been involved. Lagrand also provides laughs with his dorky body language. The joke is that he spent a year in a developmentally disabled class until someone discovered the mistake. These types of humor grew old after awhile (and I was never amused by hearing Lagrand's classmates called "the moos").
The supporting cast is often more interesting than the two leads. Zooey Deschanel needs more screen time as Lagrand's smart sister Cheryl. Judah Friedlander's hardware-store owner drew laughs every time he appeared, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays a convincingly crazed cohort of Rugged's. I also liked the cop played by Michael Rapaport, who is convinced his wife is cheating on him.
Live Free or Die struck me as being a Will Ferrell/Steve Carell-style comedy that lacked the charm associated with those actors' films. Those films also tend to have a romance or other solid storyline to bind together all the comic bits and sustain the audience's interest. Live Free or Die had no real subplot.
Writer-directors Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin used to write episodes of Seinfeld, which I never found quite as funny as anyone else, so perhaps the film is not to my personal taste. On the other hand, the audience seemed amused and entertained, but the film didn't get the laughs that it should have. The movie should be a hoot, but instead it's mildly and fitfully funny.