Fewer subgenres in recent memory have had a more fleeting window of viability, if ever it even really existed, than the “pandemic film.” Beyond that, a close second might be this millennium’s mumblecore movement, which bore a few intriguing iterations amidst a tidal wave of back-slapping tedium. In fairness, it’s perhaps more accurate to observe that the moniker of “mumblecore” has been retroactively befitted with a certain negative connotation, essentially allowing works from Andrew Bujalski, Alex Ross Perry, and even Noah Baumbach to be lifted from the genre and deposited into more “elevated” territory. Fair or not, this delineation is the accepted narrative according to prevailing cinematic consciousness, which makes leaning into the relatively antiquated mode of “lesser” mumblecore — like, say, by getting a co-sign and cameo from king mumblecore himself Mark Duplass — while also saddling your film with a pandemic-specific narrative, a bold proposition in 2022. But that’s exactly the line that the trio of Parker Seaman (director, co-screenwriter), Devin Das (co-screenwriter), and Wes Schlagenhauf take with their debut feature Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying, a bit of would-be meta moviemaking about moviemaking and (sub)genre deconstruction.
Cinema sin number one: if the title didn’t make it clear, the central trio all play unflattering versions of themselves, a fairly lazy gambit on its face and one which here isn’t done any favors by couching all of that potential self-critique within broad comedy trappings — they track only as lovable cartoon doofuses rather than characters (or artists) of depth. The plot, meanwhile, as it typically goes in these kinds of films, is welcomingly simple. Past: Parker, Devin, and Wes move to L.A. to make it in the industry, but three years ago Wes renounces the biz and returns to Boise. Present: Wes has come down with Covid, and despite not visiting him in the intervening years, Parker and Devin — now directors of branded content — decide to take a mini-road trip to see him, making a movie on their way with corporate funding they were given after fudging the severity of their friend’s condition (see is Dying). What follows, of course, are shallow questions of loyalty, artistic integrity, and friendship, riddled with so much winking you could mistake it for blinking.
Which brings us to sin number two: what Seaman and Das fail to understand is that merely acknowledging the blatant cribbing your film is built upon does not constitute meta-commentary or deconstruction, nor does it absolve you from leaving your film void of imagination. There are super twee inclusions like noting how films need to have a “fun-and-games montage,” and so naturally the duo proceeds to include a fun-and-games montage. If that doesn’t fully melt your brain, perhaps you’ll cotton more to the endless instances of the film bolding, underlining, and highlighting the various formal subtexts and conceptual principles of early mumblecore, but knowingly lest you find this all an exercise in monkey see-monkey do. Further insecure justification for this “passion project” comes in Duplass’ aforementioned cameo — literally via Cameo; see what they did there? — in which he explains that the best films come from late-night conversations you have with friends, from making movies that you would want to see. There then proceeds to be a lot of blather about “heartfelt indie content.” It’s all very annoying.
For all the humor that doesn’t land — i.e., most of the film — the trio does stumble into a few genuinely funny bits. At one point, when attempting to find a van on Craigslist in which to complete their road trip, Parker refers to “The hit indie film Little Miss Sunshine starring Greg Kinnear.” And during an act of friendly fire, Parker seeks to sabotage Devin’s solo directorial gig by pretending to be him, leaving a voicemail for the higher-ups that includes the winning bit of grade school revenge, “Sorry for the late night phone call, as earlier I was busy shitting my pants with my little poopy butt.” Of course, such juvenilia isn’t the kind of material any film can hang its hat on — Hot Rod excepted — and the fact that these admittedly mid jokes register at all is more a reflection of the utter dearth of originality or humor anywhere else in the mercifully brief 75-minute runtime. Those other 74 minutes and 45 seconds are constituted by glib rehash and lazy derivation, ushered into viewers’ eye- and earholes by a triad of grating man-baby narcissists. It’s pretty clear that Wes Schlagenhaug is Dying was intended as a kind of calling card film, but this is one number you’re going to want to lose.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.