If you knew from the time you were a small child you were living under the cloud of a curse -- that you were going to die on your 25th birthday -- how would you live your life? Charlie Silvercloud III (Robert A. Guthrie) faces that situation in Expiration Date, a black comedy by director Rick Stevenson. Both Charlie's father and his grandfather died on their 25th birthdays, in accidents involving ... milk trucks. That's right, milk trucks. Charlie's grandfather was plowed down in the middle of his street, on the way to his own birthday party. Charlie's father, hoping to avoid the same fate, spent his birthday on a boat -- only to be taken out by a renegade milk truck that ran off the road, landing right on top of his boat. Talk about bad luck.
We meet Charlie eight days before his 25th birthday, as he is going through his punch-list of impending death: Break up with girlfriend, give notice at work, buy a casket and burial plot, pick out a funeral suit, hold an estate sale, cancel the cable. Charlie plows steadfastly through his morbid "to do" list, never wavering from his firm belief that he will die on his birthday, no matter what he does. He dumps Alicia, his girlfriend of a year, without telling her why; she assumes it's because of her thighs, and launches a doughnut-eating stalkfest on her ex at the coffee shop where he presides over the bar and its customers like a king before his subjects. Charlie, you see, is something of a coffee maestro, a barista extraordinaire, and his customers are as addicted to him as they are to their caffeine.
Stevenson takes the Seattle location of the film beyond mere setting and almost makes the city a character in the film. He used some Seattle actors, shot at lots of cool Seattle locations (the film, like last year's SIFF entry Police Beat, is practically a visual walking tour of the city), and the characters act like Seattleites as well. The bit with the coffee bar is a great example. I'm sure there are coffee bars in other cities where people freak out if their favorite barista isn't there to open the shop on time, but here in Seattle, it's pretty much a universal truth. Finding the perfect coffee shop, with the perfect coffee beans roasted just so, and the perfect barista, who gets the espresso just right, steams your milk just so, and does that leaf design with the foam just the way you like it, is like a quest for the Holy Grail. You find that perfect barista, and you develop a relationship almost like a codependent doctor-patient dichotomy; such is the effect Charlie has on his customers. He is their Coffee Messiah. So when Charlie tells his boss, Lazar (Ben Ratner), that he's quitting, Lazar is understandably upset -- all the more so because Charlie won't tell him why.
As luck would have it, right as Charlie is preparing to die, he meets the girl of his dreams -- in a casket. Charlie opens up a casket to check it out, only to find it already occupied by Bessie (Sascha Knopf) -- casket shopping for her mom, who is dying of cancer. Both Bessie and Charlie want that casket (hey, it's marked down to $695), and when Charlie buys it out from under her, she stalks him with chalk-figure body outlines on his sidewalk until he agrees to give it back. When Charlie learns that Bessie is the one dying of cancer, not her mother, he finds himself becoming open to having feelings for her, in spite of the ever-encroaching date of his cursed demise.
Director Stevenson manages to keep the film from sliding into the realm of farce by astutely keeping physical comedy to a minimum. This story done by, say, Adam Sandler or, god forbid, David Spade, would have been godawful. In the hands of Stevenson and Guthrie, though, the film plays much more subtly, and as a result, ends up being a truly entertaining film. Guthrie does a really fantastic job bringing Charlie to life and making us care about him. Poor Charlie has lived so long under the shadow of imminent death, he's never learned how to live, and Guthrie captures that sadness and vulnerability very well. Knopf, as the alternately cheery and gloomy Bessie, brings an air of Brittany Murphy-cheeriness to the role, minus the mega-annoyance factor of Murphy. Dee Wallace Stone (aka the mother from E.T.) is memorable, touching, and surprisingly funny as Charlie's long-suffering but optimistic mother. Roadkill, Bessie's lovable mutt of a dog, who suffers from a bad case of "doggie narcolepsy," adds a bit of humor to every scene he's in.
Stevenson bookends the film with Native American dancers and an old Native American man telling the story of Charlie Silvercloud to a young Native boy about to hop a bus off the reservation -- a nice touch that lends the tale an air of the fable, helping to minimize the risk that the milk truck angle will seem silly. It's a wise choice by Stevenson that reflects his experience as a filmmaker; in a fable, things can happen that are larger than life or a little surreal. Expiration Date, although it's a dark comedy about death, is really a fable about life, and finding the courage to really live in the face of the inevitability of death.