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Entries in Friended to Death [2014] (1)

Friday
May022014

Friended to Death (2014)

Saving Face(book)

Friended to Death is heavy on promise but light on execution. Actor Ryan Hansen has spent a decade perfecting the handsome-clueless-jerk archetype in projects like Veronica Mars and the Friday the 13th remake. Here, he unpacks a considerable bag of tricks in creating Michael Harris, a cocky, immature parking-enforcement officer who enjoys posting pictures of violators on Facebook almost as much as he does busting them for expired meters. When someone suggests that all of Michael's "friends" are just anonymous on-line acquaintances, he announces his own death on social media to see if anyone cares.

I was excited by the movie's premise, and director/co-writer/star Sarah Smick gets some mileage out of the not-so-revolutionary idea that too much Facebooking, tweeting, and texting has degraded millennia of genuine human interaction. But she and co-writer Ian Michaels package their sermon in an intermittently amusing, faux-raunchy cartoon. Mike comes off as a sociopathic Napoleon Dynamite (with shades of Steve Stifler) and he's surrounded by a similarly exaggerated social circle.

From his passive-aggressive former-best-friend, Joel (Zach McGowan); to Joels' eager-to-please new bestie/roommate, Kev (Ian Michaels); and the dog-obsessed, still-living-at-home doormat of a colleague, Emile (James Immekus), Mike's world is jam-packed with rejected SNL-sketch characters, rather than people whom the audience might recognize and/or empathize with.

Not to mention the mysterious Sylvie (Smick), who threatens to expose Mike's secret if he doesn't make amends for a past slight. In what I assume is an unintentional bit of irony, the filmmakers undermine Sylvie's impact by having her look and act like "A" from the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars for the first half-hour--which profoundly deflates her out-of-the-shadows reveal.

I can't fault the actors for going way over the top in just about every scene. I'm sure they were directed that way, in service of Smick and Michaels' sloppy script. But even if the writing were tighter and the performances more reined in, the movie would still suffer from a fundamental problem: it looks like television. There are more close-ups here than in ten Maybeline commercials, and the effect is both claustrophobic and detrimental to what little action Friended to Death has to offer.

Take, for example, the scene in which Joel and Kev struggle over a bag of rotting chicken parts (don't ask). Inevitably, one of them ends up with stinky guts on his face. I had to infer most of what led to this, as the camera popped back and forth between two neck-up shots for the duration of the scene. Much of the movie is awkwardly cropped like this, giving the impression of a hundred boom mics dangling just outside the boundaries of each actor's head. The single exception is a very cool shot involving cotton-ball cloud decorations hanging in a bedroom; it's the best use of 2D in creating a 3D effect I've seen in a long time.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Things pick up at the very end, when Joel confronts Michael on his self-involvement and inability to connect with flesh-and-blood people. It's a powerful scene that belongs in a better movie--as is one that picks up a year later and finds Michael off the grid and living a carefree, considerate life. In these final moments, the movie gives us a glimpse of its full potential. Like the Internet itself, Friended to Death could have been a platform for elevating important ideas and engaging in profound conversations in an entertaining way.

Instead, the movie becomes Facebook: a semi-amusing time-suck that's way dumber and disappointing than its creators likely intended.

Chicagoans! Friended to Death opens today at the Streets of Woodfield AMC in Schaumburg, and will be available on VOD May 9th.