"A chronicle of enterprising demises," the Darwin Awards are given out to real life characters who "improve the gene pool by accidentally removing themselves from it." Started online in 1993, The Darwin Awards collects and verifies stories of people who have managed to kill themselves through outlandish (and often very stupid) accidents.
Joseph Feinnes stars as Michael Burrows, a police profiler so obsessed with Darwin Awards cases that he may be at risk of becoming one. Of course, the obsessive-compulsive Burrows has a few issues of his own, not the least being his hematophobia -- he faints at the site of blood -- which gets him suspended from the San Francisco police force. Worse still, his fainting spell is caught on tape by a filmmaker shooting his thesis project, a documentary about the San Francisco police, whose main subject is Burrows. Using his unique skill set to land a job with an insurance company, Burrows promises to create a personality profile that would screen out those most likely to wind up on the Darwin Awards, thereby saving the company millions. (This set up, by the way, takes place mostly BEFORE the opening credits, which should provide a sense of the film's antic pace.)
Enter Winona Ryder as Siri Taylor, the insurance company's best field investigator and Michael Burrows' new partner. The two drive across the country together investigating the most outlandish insurance claims, with Burrows' personal documentarian in tow. That the film ends up ultimately being a love story is not a surprise. Of course Taylor and Burrows are opposites -- she's tough, he's vulnerable. She has been investigating insurance claims for ten years and has developed a thick skin viewing the inevitable results of the freak accidents in which she specializes. Winona Ryder brings a very particular angularity to the role. She doesn't exactly crack wise, but she certainly pushes Burrows outside his comfort zone, challenging his ideas and pointing out how similar he is to the Darwin Awards winners that are his obsession.
I've always liked Winona Ryder, from the beginning of her career as the goth teen in Beetlejuice and the murderous mean girl in Heathers, she brings a brittle charm and an offbeat intelligence to every role. This plays beautifully against Joseph Feinnes' cuddly kookiness. Something about this combination really WORKS. They are like Tracy and Hepburn or Burns and Allen, with the sexes reversed. He's the one with the wacky philosophy, and ideas that are so crazy they turn out to be true. From the first case Burrows and Taylor investigate together -- she has to revive him from a faint -- we know they will overcome their differences. But the rest of the film -- with its diversions through various tales of Darwin Award "winners" that include David Arquette, Chris Penn (in his last film role), Lukas Haas and an almost unrecognizable Julianna Margulies (as a Brit who has an unfortunate "run in" with a dentist, played by our very own Josh Kornbluth) -- is wacky, smart fun.
One can trace the origins of local boy, Finn Taylor's The Darwin Awards back through the works of Jim Carrey, Will Ferrel, Adam Sandler and their ilk. In fact, that lineage runs face first into the two Jackass movies, which are as close to filmed segments of the Darwin Awards as anyone would hope to get -- and even spawned re-enactments by Jackass-influenced Award hopefuls. What's different here is that Taylor (through Burrows) ponders the motivations behind the resultant deaths. Burrows' gift for reading human behavior helps us to see how a rich man's greed might cause him to be crushed by a vending machine or how a gas station attendant's need for speed might result in a crash landing on a desert hillside. Finn Taylor's Darwin Awards contenders are real, fleshed out men, with real hopes and dreams, whose lives have taken a terrible (though hardly unforeseen) turn -- and they are played with manic brilliance by a wildly talented supporting cast.
It's fun to see these dim bulbs played intelligently, and almost more for pathos than for laughs -- though there are many of those. The Darwin Awards isn't one of those cut and paste films about a man-child on a rampage. What's scary is that there is a special kind of logic just visible behind some of their crackpot schemes. When David Arquette spies an old jet engine in an army surplus junkyard, or Chris Penn suggests ice fishing with explosives, one can almost see the 50-watt bulb flicker on briefly over each actor's head. Ultimately the film is a bizarre celebration of a uniquely San Francisco mentality. It's a paean to the misfit and the outsider. Midway through the film, Burrows wonders aloud, "How do people have normal lives?" I've asked myself that very question countless times. The Darwin Awards celebrates those who haven't a clue.