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Tribeca Review: 'The High Cost Of Living' Can't Afford A Better Plot

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 28, 2011 at 2:16AM

Just how out of touch are some filmmakers? There's a small trend of plots in which the main character commits a truly horrible crime of violent nature (which may even go as far as murder), usually by mistake, and their ultimate next move is to spy on the victim, befriend them, and pretend like nothing ever happened. This premise isn't just borderline offensive (a character tricking their victim for some weird personal catharsis? A writer composing such an artificial scenario just to tug viciously at our hearts?), its banality and self-righteousness basically paints the writer/director as someone who has never had anything remotely similar happened to them. Of course we all have our imaginations and we're all entitled to use them, but this kind of overdramatic falseness is rearing its head a bit too often (see Sundance hit "Another Earth," there's a slight variation in Andrea Arnold's "Red Road") to be given a pass. Deborah Chow's debut feature "The High Cost of Living" commits the same crime, banking on the misery of one person and the unbelievably low intellect of another.
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Just how out of touch are some filmmakers? There's a small trend of plots in which the main character commits a truly horrible crime of violent nature (which may even go as far as murder), usually by mistake, and their ultimate next move is to spy on the victim, befriend them, and pretend like nothing ever happened. This premise isn't just borderline offensive (a character tricking their victim for some weird personal catharsis? A writer composing such an artificial scenario just to tug viciously at our hearts?), its banality and self-righteousness basically paints the writer/director as someone who has never had anything remotely similar happened to them. Of course we all have our imaginations and we're all entitled to use them, but this kind of overdramatic falseness is rearing its head a bit too often (see Sundance hit "Another Earth," there's a slight variation in Andrea Arnold's "Red Road") to be given a pass. Deborah Chow's debut feature "The High Cost of Living" commits the same crime, banking on the misery of one person and the unbelievably low intellect of another.

We're quickly introduced to a bad-ass Zach Braff, hoping to wipe the memories of all who remember the charming goofball from "Scrubs" or the Shins-loving depressant of "Garden State." Donning a leather jacket with prescription drugs in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Braff's Henry runs the streets of Canada, slinging legal drugs and partying to his heart's content. Unfortunately, a late-night delivery leads him on a collision course, literally, with the very-pregnant Nathalie (Isabelle Blais, "The Barbarian Invasions.") After a fight with her ice-cold husband, she begins to have contractions and makes way to the streets to hail a cab. Henry's drug & alcohol induced inattentiveness causes him to make an illegal turn onto a one-way, a mistake that results in Nathalie being hit and essentially losing the baby.


Henry high-tails it but keeps a close eye on her, unsure if she survived the accident or not. Nathalie, on the other hand, sinks into a depression after not only losing her baby but discovering that the dead fetus cannot be removed until she recovers from the hit -- which is a matter of weeks. Now she must continue to live like a pregnant woman, only with the additional weight of carrying her dead offspring. The two meet at a bar, and Henry instantly woos her -- an act of redemption for his fatal error. Eventually Nathalie becomes fed up with her distant husband and leaves him, moving in with Henry temporarily. As the two grow closer and share cute, date-esque moments (thus negating the ultimate Braff transformation and his charming persona becomes prevalent once again), Henry must come to terms with what he did and tell Nathalie the truth -- even if it means prison.

Like your most typical micro-budget project, Chow ignores any sort of creative visual aesthetic and sticks to very general framing and cutting, hoping the actors will carry the convoluted script to success. While it doesn't -- the plot is far too spurious -- the acting is actually quite good. Blais is unfortunately fairly one-dimensional, relegated to either being mopey or cutesy, but she does play the character effectively. Most will want to hate on Braff right from the get-go (after all, this is the guy that made all of us poor movie nerds suffer through people gushing over a hip romantic comedy - like it's a personal offense of some sort), but those who put their biases aside will be pleased with his performance, as he fleshes the character out and takes certain moments to unexpected places. At a point when Nathalie is by herself in his home, a woman comes asking for him, hoping to score -- though Nathalie figures she's a neighbor or old friend coming for a visit. Henry arrives hours later, and when she informs him about her encounter with the woman, Braff plays it subtle -- as he realizes that she has just been introduced to a world that he was trying to keep secret, he remains cool but inquires about the interaction in a very nonchalant way. It's not Klaus Kinski or anything, but Braff displays a depth that he never has before -- hopefully the more malicious audience members will give him a chance.

However, solid acting can't cover up the poor writing and direction, with the story hitting too-familiar notes and relying too much on its over-the-top scenario. We've seen this before and we know what will happen and what Henry will do. In fact, it's so stock that it might even be infinitely more interesting if he just didn't come clean at all -- darker material, sure, but it's closer to human nature than the fairytale endings of redemption. What's truly disappointing is the shaft that the script's only original idea gets -- that of a woman forced to keep her dead child inside her until she "regains strength." Of course, that idea could obviously be taken in the wrong direction and become just as extreme as the rest of the lot, but there's so much potential in the topic that it begs for some sort of dissertation. But Chow only uses it as a prop and an after thought, too caught up in her non-comedy romance involving a woman and the man who hit her with a car and killed her baby. What would you do if you accidentally ran over a human being with a car? Probably not this. [D+]

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Review, Zach Braff, The High Cost of Living


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