Leave it to Miss Cleo to challenge me cinematically. I thought I was used to the idea by now, but then she dropped Veronika Decides to Die on me.
Some quick background: This film is based on a Paulo Coelho novel centering around a failed suicide attempt. Following said failure, a young woman is institutionalized. Given news that she’s going to die from a freak heart condition brought about by the suicide attempt, she is forced to examine the depths of the desire to live by embracing the dread, so to speak. Basically, it’s a you-don’t-know-what-you-want-’til-you-know-you-can’t-have-it sort of situation. Alongside this is an overarching message about mass sanity and madness, boiling down to the idea that whatever is accepted as the norm is indeed the norm, no matter the level of sanity and/or logic. It’s a spiritual journey of sorts set very definitively in the material and interpersonal world.
How does it translate to the big screen?
Well, first you transplant everything from Slovenia to New York. Natch. Despite having “it all”, Veronika emulates the title and downs some pills with a liquor chaser. In her dying daze, she scribbles out a screed against the fashion industry, accusing it of manipulation and mass madness. (This was a plot point in the book as well, but we’ll get back to it later.) After she is found and treated (more on that later, as well), she’s given her rough news and is pretty much interred in a high-end asylum until her time is up. As she meets her fellow inmates, she develops an unlikely relationship with a catatonic schizophrenic, Edward. Moreover, she reconnects with her long-lost love for the piano (she was once a prodigy, y’see). Thanks mainly to those two influences, Veronika decides she wants to live, escapes with newly-“awakened” Edward, and ostensibly finds the true happiness that had hitherto evaded her.
Anybody’s head tilt a bit at the end of that? Oh, I forgot to mention the twist: her heart condition was a hoax generated by the doctor to basically manipulate her into following the psychological path she ends up going down. He’s known for out-of-the-box and gonzo treatment methods, y’see.
I have not read the book, so I’m not gonna comment on the strength of adaptation. Instead, I wanna try to communicate why my feelings at the end of this film were incredibly mixed. Let’s start with the positives. SMG did a pretty solid job in the lead role, one that even gained the outright praise of Coelho himself. Sure, I’ve never seen her challenged before, but she rose to the challenge presented her. The cinematography is well done as well, utilizing slight color desats to the betterment of the film for once (take notes, shitty action flicks!). And, on its immediate face, the message, though torn from the pages of a Tim McGraw set list, of “live like you were dying” is a generally positive one.
But there begins my list of issues as well. Laudable as that message may sound, it’s a bit distorted from the book, watered down for easier consumption, a spoonful of sugar in a way. Moreover, the way it’s arrived at leaves much to be desired. I’m not referring to the slightly underhanded and potentially unethical methods of the doctor, but rather the character progression exhibited by Veronika. She doesn’t really gradually comes to grip with her situation and the issues that led her to taking her own life; instead she jerks almost jarringly from moment of insight to moment of insight, often with little or no reflection or indication of internal workings or anything: She simply just starts to think and act differently based on the needs of the scene. One minute she hates everything, the next she wants to feel the sand of the beach on her feet and eat a burrito from her favorite street vendor. (“Women…” the script seems to be saying, rolling its eyes and asking for high fives from the dudes in earshot.) This distorts the pacing, which starts out deliberate and moves quickly into a setting just below Gazelle.
Her connection with Edward is odd and very brute-fact, as though we should understand its random suddenness despite having no reason to do so. Further, apparently all Veronika, this pretty, rich, successful woman, needed was a bit of man flesh to get her to want to live again. No mention of any heartbreak or issues of the heart, so we’re just kinda left to intuit that a good dicking would even her out for some reason. Sure, the piano playing does its part, too, but it doesn’t get even a tenth of the screen time or emphasis that the love story does.
Putting it shortly, the script is pretty shoddy, both for the problems above and the lack of any real character development outside of Veronika and Edward (the doctor seems to get a slight arc, but its rushed, hardly fleshed out at all, and almost pointless).
Then there’s the music. According to my cursory research on the internet, the American release (including the DVD) has an altered score from the original version, which the rest of the world got. Lo and behold, our version is weaksauce, forgettable as all get-out. Moreover, there are occasional inserted songs that stick out not only from the rest of the music but also the tone of the film itself. One in particular, during a short pool scene, jumped out at me for being wholly inappropriate given the strange and sorta tense circumstances.
So, yeah, a weak script and poor music unfortunately balance out a solid SMG performance and atmospheric photography. I’m left unsure how to feel toward this thing. On the one hand, it’s life-affirming and approaches the kind of power it aspires to, but on the other it rings disturbingly hollow and cliched, with little to nothing demanding repeat viewings in my eyes. It’s sad to say, but I almost nothing this film. I will say that I’m not upset for having watched it, but it fell well short of the usual success enjoyed by Miss Cleo’s recommendations.
Fret not, though, for even the sage herself expressed her doubts concerning my reception of this film. Well-founded those doubts seem to have been. Still, like I said, I’m not smarting from the watch, so it wasn’t a complete failure, and, trust me, some decided success remains in the immediate future…