Not unlike seeing “signed” ephemera inside your neighborhood Applebee’s, seeing trailers for bad movies with good actors leaves us equal parts intrigued and dubious. Are they subject to relegation? Did they need the money? Were they up to their eyes in coke when they read the “nuanced” script in nine minutes flat? Did they need the money? These are all questions we might have posed in 1993 when Jennifer Aniston, a future household name, starred in a film about a killer leprechaun, but we didn’t because the “Friends” pilot wasn’t until 1994. And so, instead, we’ll save these loaded thinkers for David Gelb’s debut feature, “The Lazarus Effect”: 2015’s heretofore worst film that could have been just plain worse.

“The Lazarus Effect”

D+
Relativity Studios
Rave and Quality 16


Gelb, a New York native, earned a bronze award in a NYC-wide Shakespeare monologue competition at some point before his brief, doc-driven filmography took off. His 2011 “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” documents an 85-year-old sushi master and the film was nabbed for Tribeca Film Fest alongside critical acclaim. But, as someone wiser than me once lectured, the fun is forever ephemeral. In “The Lazarus Effect,” Gelb forays into a tenuous subgenre of horror — the kind powered along only by unlit cheap scares and kick-me-in-the-face romantic passes. And Olivia Wilde in a bra ticks before she goes all animorph-eyes and starts hurting her friends. It shocks me that Gelb, someone who must know what humanity looks like based on his “Sushi” run, could hire a couple writers who are inspired only by the fact that they’re still afraid of the dark.

The film centers — no, hovers without gravity — on a group of medical researchers granted big bucks by their university to perfect a serum that prolongs the time doctors have to study people in comas. “It’s about giving everyone a second chance,” as Frank (Mark Duplass, “The One I Love”), the lead on the project, puts it. The research changes course after the unlikely revival of a dead dog, dialing the film’s temperature up to a moral and metaphysical fever pitch. Fair enough, but only until the university admin, who’s in bed with Big Pharma and well aware of Frank and his team’s recent discoveries, decides to pull their funding and supplant their lab with wonkish suits.

Livid with the stipulation-whore university, Frank and his team, made up of Zoe (Olivia Wilde, “Drinking Buddies”), two quirky jokesters (Donald Glover, TV’s “Community,” and Evan Peters, TV’s “American Horror Story”) and a student intern (Sarah Bolger, “Crush”), break into the premises to finish what could be some earth-shattering shit.

Until something goes, like, wrong.

The rest of the movie is less a movie and more an attention grabber Gelb puts on a set, injecting narrative trivialities just so we can (hopefully) forget about how trivial the movie is in total. You know you’re in trouble when 50 percent of your shots use surveillance-cam grain and you aren’t aware of your campiness. A “Paranormal Activity” movie knows what it is. “Lazarus,” through its surface-level dialogue on life and religion and DMT, gets mired in its self-seriousness. Life is too short to be serious — unless you’re “Boyhood.”

In the third act, Wilde’s character, revived through questionable means after an unexplained accident, can suddenly use 100 percent of her brain’s capacity. She, with a sinister grin, hears others’ conversations play out ahead of time, and it’s kind of cool. It’s a mini tragedy we had to watch Wilde fang instead of smile, see Duplass play doc instead of dude and, in the end, sit through a film that never succeeds in using its potential for supernatural-spiked editing to make it into “watchable” territory. And, with that, we’ll once more peg it the worst.

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