An oddball comedy from writer/director Finn Taylor ("Dream With the Fishes"), "The Darwin Awards" is a comedy with an unusual premise. The "Darwin Awards" are awards given out to people who have taken themselves out of the picture in the stupidest ways possible in the prior year. Taking themselves out of the picture also takes them out of the gene pool, hence the title.
Joseph Fiennes stars as Michael Burrows, a SF police detective who faints at the sight of blood. When this condition results in a criminal getting away (and getting away on video, given the fact that there's a student documentary filmmaker following Michael for no apparent reason), it leads Michael to seek out new work. He manages to talk his way into an insurance company when he manages to profile the boss, using the clues the realize the boss is having an affair.
Michael tells the insurance exec that the people nominated for the Darwin Awards cost the company tons in claims every year. If these people can be found before they do something truly stupid, the insurance company saves a ton of cash. So, Michael is paired up with a snippy investigator (Winona Ryder) in order to help him prove his theories.
So, the shy Michael and the wild, rather irritable Siri go across the country looking into cases of claims that are the result of stupidity; Michael investigates them, then we see what happened in flashback. These include a guy (David Arquette) trying to impress his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) by strapping a huge military jet engine to the back of his car. He soon finds that the parking brake doesn't exactly work when the car is going hundreds of miles an hour. Later on, a Brit (Julianna Margulies) doesn't quite understand the meaning of "cruise control" and finally, a couple of idiots try the worst possible way to get into a Metallica (who are pretty funny in a cameo) concert.
One wonders what would have happened with this film had a filmmaker been completely willing to embrace the concept. While I haven't always like the films of former "State" actor Michael Patrick Jann, this kind of dark comedy would be exactly right for him. Mike Judge also did something similar with the very funny and underrated "Idiocracy", which has become a cult film since its tiny theatrical release last year. Taylor is more concerned with playing up the semi-surreal aspects "The Darwin Awards" than trying to go for laughs. There's a few chuckles and a good laugh or two throughout the movie, but much of the movie remains sort of a low-key blend of mellow drama, a little bit of romance, comedy and road movie. The mixture of a ton of different elements seems a little muddled, as the film never quite settles on a tone. The documentary filmmaker character (played off-screen by Wilmer Valderrama) is a pointless addition, as well.
The performances aren't bad, but Fiennes plays Michael as rather blandly irritating and unlikable. The actor strains to try and do comedy, and his trying to force things is quite apparent. Ryder fares better, as while her character isn't supposed to be likable either, at least she manages to add some spark to the character. David Arquette, the late Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Juliette Lewis and others are fine in smallish roles.
Overall, "The Darwin Awards" was merely okay, suffering from some casting issues and the fact that Taylor doesn't seem all that suited to handling comedy.
VIDEO: "Darwin Awards" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The screening copy of the film that was provided offered average image quality, with some mild artifacting and slight edge enhancement. However, this is still not the final copy and unfortunately, I cannot make any final comments on it, as the final copy will likely offer differing (and hopefully better) image quality.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack occasionally made some light use of the surrounds (see the Metallica scenes, for example), but otherwise remained a dialogue-driven presentation with forward-oriented sound design. Audio quality was fine, with clear speech.
EXTRAS: A short "making of" featurette, cast interviews, stills and trailers for other Fox titles ("Kickin' It Old School" and "Even Money".)
Final Thoughts: "The Darwin Awards" suffers from some casting issues, a lack of consistent tone and other concerns. The movie does get some darkly funny laughs at times, but the idea had potential to be better in the hands of someone else. Overall, a noticably uneven film with some interesting moments and a few chuckles.
The Film C