Film Review: "Pushing Dead"

Screening at the Heartland Film Festival as a Narrative Feature Finalist, Director Tom E. Brown makes his feature length film debut with “Pushing Dead,” a comedy about HIV.

"Pushing Dead" made it's Heartland Film debut this week. (Photo courtesy of "Pushing Dead" Facebook page.)

"Pushing Dead" made it's Heartland Film debut this week. (Photo courtesy of "Pushing Dead" Facebook page.)

The film stars James Roday (“Psych”), Robin Weigert (“American Horror Story: Roanoke”), Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon”, “The Color Purple”), and Khandi Alexander (“Scandal”).

After depositing a $100  check he received from his mother, Dan Schauble’s (Roday) health insurance is taken away as his salary is deemed too high, making his HIV medication unaffordable.

It’s clear throughout the film that this is the work of a first time director. Granted, this is not director Tom E. Brown’s first film. He’s directed several short films before this film, but this one is his first one that’s feature length, as in, at least 60 minutes long. The film is very quirky, as are a vast majority of independent films. The editing is fast, with plenty of quick cuts, and characters frequently enter and exit the frame in intentionally awkward or funny ways. To better illustrate, there’s a subplot about a Robin Weigert’s character, Paula, coming to terms with a stuffed animal monkey.

With the quirky tone comes a lot of heavy handed analogies. From the aforementioned monkey, to a creepy monotone girl, to troll dolls, the film jam packs itself with symbolism. While deeper meaning inside of art is always a great thing, it becomes this film’s downfall. The overabundance of symbolism makes the film unfocused.While there is a large amount of meaningful imagery, it ultimately amounts to not much by the end of the film. Instead, it causes at least three subplots to sidetrack off the main story, again, cluttering the film more and more until it doesn’t amount to anything. The film tries to to be complex and meaningful, but in the end it’s just cluttered.

Despite this, what’s impressive about Brown’s directions is how he’s able to blend such a light tone with a such a heavy topic like HIV. The tone of the film works. Brown is able combine the two contrasting ideas in a way that doesn’t feel tasteless in the slightest, which shouldn’t go without praise. Granted, it may require a darker sense of humor, but most of the comedy is not centered on Schauble’s HIV infection, and when it is, it doesn’t feel tasteless.

While Roday doesn’t give  the performance of the year, he does a good enough job that he’s able to realize his character. His character, Schauble, isn’t incredibly complex. The film attempts to flesh him out in several scenes, but it doesn’t go as far as it could. Roday does the best with what he’s given. He blends with the character enough that the audience forgets that he’s an actor  instead of the character himself. He sells his emotional scenes, showing that he can show range if he’s given the right material.

Still from "Pushing Dead." (Photo  courtesy of "Pushing Dead" Facebook page.)

Still from "Pushing Dead." (Photo  courtesy of "Pushing Dead" Facebook page.)

Weigert does a good job, but almost too good of a job. She gives it a little bit too much, to the point where she’s too exaggerated. This takes the audience out of the film, because Paula becomes less character and more caricature. While the film is quirky, her acting contrasts with the other actors, who all give relatively well balanced performances. She isn’t like this the entire film, though, as there are a few scenes where gives a more subtle performance. For the most part, however, her performance would have been stronger if she dialed it back a little.

Unsurprisingly, Danny Glover gives the best performance in the entire film. The man is 70 years old, he’s been acting for 37 of them. The dude knows how to act. Unlike Weigert, he’s subtle in his performance, but also earnest. He’s able to give off emotions as well as plenty of laughs. He does act within type, as a raspy voiced, old, grumpy man, and the point of his character, Bob, in the film is not very clear, but Glover is still able to find a good performance, which is probably like a walk in the park for him.

Despite an overabundance of heavy handed symbolism and a complicated, almost nonexistent plot, “Pushing Dead” is still a great showpiece for director Tom E. Brown’s ability to balance tone. He manages to make a movie about HIV funny, which it goes without saying is no easy task. Couple this with mostly good performances, “Pushing Dead” is still an enjoyable time at the theater and a good addition to the Heartland Film Festival.