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’4:44′ Imagines Earth’s End — Only With A Whimper

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 23, 2012

Throughout the 21st century, the movies have been telling us how we’re all going to die: by environmental catastrophe, contagion, resource shortages, rapture, alien invasion, mass infertility, celestial collision and flesh-eating zombies.

But what if we knew precisely when we were going to die, to the minute, and no change in our habits or asteroid redirection or luxury space liner would make any difference? How would we relate to our loved ones — not to mention other citizens of the world — in those final hours? How do we say goodbye to the planet?

Director Lars von Trier addressed some of those questions profoundly in last year’s Melancholia, but even then the characters faced only the possibility of Earth’s colliding with a larger planet, not a certainty. With 4:44 Last Day on Earth, writer-director Abel Ferrara rejects the dominant trend of grand apocalyptic visions by showing the end of the world from the vantage of an Upper East Side loft.

It’s an ingenious (and frugal) premise, both for removing all doubt about the fate of mankind and for limiting its perspective to the intimacies of home. The dramatic and philosophical possibilities are endless.

The Ferrara of old — the “bad boy” provocateur responsible for The Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant — might have taken Last Day on Earth to extreme places, but a more circumspect artistic personality dominates these proceedings — and a far less compelling one, too.

Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), the loft’s bohemian occupants, seem to have reached the “acceptance” stage of grieving for the planet. Between sessions of Buddhist meditation and bouts of plane-going-down sex, they mark the time casually, with Skye splashing paint around like Jackson Pollock and Cisco watching TV or poking around on his iPad.

Cisco occasionally ventures onto the roof to survey the city and strikes out briefly to visit some old friends, who offer liquor and drugs that Cisco, a recovering addict, can’t bring himself to accept even now.

And therein lies the major problem with Last Day on Earth: In his rejection of pre-apocalyptic hysteria, Ferrara breaks too far in the other direction. Cisco’s refusing to get high may be matter of integrity, but the petty bickering between him and Skye about his addiction, or his feelings for his ex-wife, seem like the ultimate in matters for another day.

For Cisco to reach out to his ex-wife and daughter via Skype makes sense, and the film is sophisticated in the ways it shows technology’s power to access the world while holding its people in isolation. But rehashing old arguments in the hours before certain death is a tedious waste of time — theirs, and ours.

Ferrara fares better in the offhand moments when his loose-limbed, unstructured day-in-the-life story pays unexpected dividends — as when a local news broadcaster bids his final farewell before bunking down with his family, or when a horrified Cisco witnesses a jumper leaping casually off an adjacent building.

Best of all is the half-surreal, half-touching scene of the couple ordering Chinese delivery — needless to say, the tip is sizable — and inviting the courier to Skype his family one last time and share in a moment of common humanity. For the tenderness that passes between them, this stranger could be mistaken for their son.

If only the rest of Last Day on Earth could conjure up the same urgency and depth of feeling. The Last Tango in Bohemia vibe between Dafoe and Leigh never really sparks — partly because Leigh, the director’s real-life girlfriend, isn’t much of an actress, but mainly because Ferrara gets mired in Cisco and Skye’s meaningless dysfunction.

Ferrara writes as if the prospect of certain world-ending catastrophe merely amplifies the kvetching, when in fact it’s the one time when people might literally act like there’s no tomorrow. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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