[Film Review] Alice in Earnestland (2015)
Why does black comedy work? It’s no easy feat to delve into the darkest depths and pull out laughs. The key ingredient is pathos. Take the lovable Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment,” perhaps the most successful black comedy of all time. Sure, he’s a sleazy guy involved with other sleazy guys, but Lemmon has so much charisma you can’t help but fall in love.
This is where “Alice in Earnestland” fails. It’s not a “bad” movie, but it is unsatisfying. I started with high hopes, having long lamented how Korean media glosses over the misery and pain inherent in poverty. The poor appear only in the form of eternally plucky leads. “Alice in Earnestland” promised a woman whose cheeriness eventually gives out after one too many sucker punches by an indifferent society. What I got was something else, something ugly.
Soo-Nam (Lee Jung-Hyun) is a working class girl who starts out with a bright future. She wins several academic prizes. However, she fails to adapt to the newly-computerized workplace and ends up crunching numbers in a dreary factory. There she meets her husband-to-be, Gyu-Jung (Lee Hae-Young). Gyu-Jung is mostly deaf when they meet. After they are married, he loses his hearing entirely. He wants to buy a house, but Soo-Nam convinces him to get a cochlear implant first. When Gyu-Jung returns to work at the factory after his surgery, his implant malfunctions causing him lose his fingers in an industrial accident.
Gyu-Jung is the most unsavory part of the film. After the accident he is characterized as useless, unable to provide for his wife, and unable to contribute to the world. That is ridiculous. The film tries to get big laughs from Gyu-Jung hurting himself while attempting to hang up a picture using a power drill. It’s unpleasant and depressing.
Gyu-Jung mopes about the house for (literally) nine years. Meanwhile, Soo-Nam works constantly to earn enough to buy a rundown house. Almost immediately after the house is bought, Gyu-Jung attempts suicide and ends up in a vegetative state. This is also supposed to get big laughs.
Did I mention this film begins with Soo-Nam taking a community counselor hostage? But this is no regular community counselor. For meanwhile, if a government redevelopment project gets the greenlight Soo-Nam will get to sell her crappy house for a gazillion dollars. Our friend the counselor wants to stop the project. The last half of the film follows this rivalry. It escalates with increasingly disgusting violence.
There is probably a universe where this movie could work, but it needs some significant rewrites. The film is disgusted by the poor, filling every scene with irritating biddies and slack-jawed yokels. Lee Jung-Hyun’s performance is flat. Despite all of her character’s suffering, I really didn’t care if she won or not. Lee Hae-Young does a respectable job, but he’s got so little to work with.
Looks like I’ll have to keep waiting for the day when the perky, poor female lead trope gets a well-deserved knocking.