That’s So Ava!: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)’s Potential Second Life as a Multi-Cam Sitcom

There’s a certain crop of 90s art house films that I can never quite fully give into despite their consistently positive reputations. Titles like Clerks, Slacker, and Living in Oblivion are supposedly essential to the voice of a disaffected, laid back generation of arty farty types, but I often have a difficult time connecting with what they’re selling (possibly because they pretend not to be selling anything at all). Gen-X cinema often purported to be the laid back slacker counterpoint to the over-enthusiastic, grandiose generations that came before, but in actuality felt more try-hard & fresh out of art school than ever. The king of this I Don’t Care At All (But I Secretly Care Too Much) aesthetic is, in my mind, one Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s intentional art house pretension leads to some interesting moments that all too often get drowned out by the suffocating self-indulgence that surrounds them. There are some amazing small moments & images in Jarmsuch titles like Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, and Coffee & Cigarettes, but all three of those examples leave me so frustrated because they ultimately feel like wasted potential when considered in their fatally affected totality.

As much as I can be frustrated with Jarmusch’s overall product, I genuinely enjoy his sillier flourishes. Besides poking fun at his own self-serious mystique on the show Bored to Death & appearing as the “French fried potater” salesman in Sling Blade, the director always includes a flight of fancy or two in his works that catch my attention & delight me. Bill Murray serving diner food to the Wu Tang Clan, Steve Buscemi getting hung up on Lost in Space trivia, and (in my only pet favorite from the director’s catalog) Roberto Benigni annoying the piss out of Tom Waits are the kinds of breath-of-fresh-air moments of sublime humor that nearly save his work for me. Nearly. If Jarmusch dealt exclusively in broad, yuck-it-up comedy instead of using it to punctuate his more intellectual tendencies toward existential self-reflection I might even be willing to call myself a fan.

I waited as long as possible to catch up with Jarmusch’s most recent work, the vampiric existential crisis piece Only Lovers Left Alive, despite my burning fan worship of bonafide changeling Tilda Swinton (who was on fire that year, considering her work in Snowpiercer & Grand Budapest Hotel). Something about the film’s promo material struck me as a lowkey remake of The Hunger (I still don’t think I was entirely off-base there), which is one of those delicately immaculate cult films that probably should not be touched or even cautiously approached. Buried somewhere deep in the film’s ennui & self-pity, however, was one of those typical Jarmusch saving graces I’m prattling on about here. Mia Wasikowska, who has dazzled me before in titles like Crimson Peak & Maps to the Stars, absolutely steals the show in Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s some kind of self-important rock star cool at the heart of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton’s titular vampiric lovers that honestly bores me to no end in the film, but Wasikowska’s wonderfully disruptive, chaotic presence brings the film, well, back from the dead with the minuscule screentime she’s allowed. Swinton’s matriarch vampire Eve (her vampy hubby’s name is Adam btw *puke*) is struggling with the tedium of centuries-long survival, but her younger, still-stoked sister Ava is a frivolous hoot. She consistently fucks up, wreaks havoc, and over-indulges like a spoiled brat, a behavioral pattern Adam indicates is habitual . . . which finally brings me to my pitch.

Imagine for a minute an alternate, preferable universe in which Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a stuffy art house film about addiction or romantic ennui or whatever, but instead a multi-cam sitcom with a laugh track in which Wasikowska’s vampire brat Ava crashed the gloomy party every week in spectacular fashion. I want to go to there. Adam & Ava have an exquisitely balanced Odd Couple dynamic. His gloom & her glitz clash beautifully & hilariously, but aren’t given nearly enough screen time to fully play out. Fairly soon after Ava arrives from Los Angeles & burns Adam’s entire life to ground, he’s stuffing her into a cab so that he can pout & whither with Eve in Europe somewhere. Boring. It’s not fair to me as a trash-loving citizen of the movie-going audience. I demand more goofy, disastrous Ava antics, preferably delivered to my television set on a weekly basis with a laugh track prompting me on when to chuckle & slap my knee. Wasikowska delivers a stellar performance here as a bubbly (unintentional) antagonist brat & I could watch her do that shtick for at least 100 syndicated episodes of a formulaic sitcom.

Unfortunately, Wasikowska feels like she’s performing in an entirely different movie form everyone else (Amy Heckerling’s underrated gem Vamps, maybe?) and, although I understand the sentiment is far from universal, it’s a movie I’d much rather be watching. This film’s Gen-X aesthetic hangover just doesn’t do it for me the way an Ava vs. Adam sitcom would. I’m totally okay with how vapid that makes me sound; I just also wish that I had the funding to make the ultimate reality where we had a That’s So Ava! sitcom meld with our own. The world would be a much better place for it.

-Brandon Ledet

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