The Darwin Awards first appeared around 22 years ago, or somewhere thereabouts. Their purpose was to recognize those souls with such a rare, or not so rare, intelligence that fate saw fit for them to be removed from the gene pool. The result is a cleaner, friendlier gene pool in which to swim. Basically, these are the stories of people who were killed (or at least seriously hurt) in the most bizarre and creative ways. Check out the Darwin Awards website to see some of these wild stories for yourself.
What we have here is a film that attempts to bring some of those outlandish stories to the movie realm, woven together in episodic format while a common thread holds them together. In the end, it is moderately effective, though not terribly good.
The connective tissue of the Darwin episodes centers on Michael Burrows (Joseph Fiennes). The character begins the film as a police personality profiler working on the case of a serial killer. The problem is that, while he is very good at what he does, he has a condition that causes him to faint at the sight of blood, a fact that comes into play when he is on the verge of catching the killer. His condition allows the guy to get away, resulting in Burrows losing his job. The loss of his position leads to his true passion, the investigation of these Darwin cases.
So, off he goes to a large insurance company with a proposal that could save them millions, studying the factors contributing to these inventive ways of dying, create an insurance profile, and then use that to determine coverage. With a limited time to prove his case, he is paired with an insurance adjustor, Siri (Winona Ryder), and together they head out to investigate the odd and unusual claims.
Well, that is pretty much all there is to the story that holds everything together. It is not much. The centerpiece of The Darwin Awards are the numerous episodes of the Darwin incidents, some of which you are probably familiar with from the annual email chain announcing the winners.
Still, while the appeal are the Darwin sequences, what really held my attention was Joseph Fiennes' performance. He is a clever creation that seems to be heavily influenced by Tony Shalhoub's Monk (he may not be, but the similarities are there). There is a good amount of narration that evokes a noirish feel, combined with the by-the-book nature of Burrows. Burrows is a much more complex character than you would expect to find in this type of light film. However, the movie is crippled by a mixture of traditionally shot scenes, and the device of having Burrows followed by a student documentary filmmaker. I am not sure why that decision was made; it made for a couple of humorous moments, but it just felt inconsistent with the narration. The two devices clashed and did not help the film in the least.
The casting of Fiennes and Ryder does not work all that well. The chemistry between them is minimal at best, and Ryder might as well be phoning it in. Sure, she looks lovely and has a certain charisma, but there was somethign about her that was unconvincing. Beyond the two leads, there are a good number of recognizable faces throughout the vignettes, including David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Judah Friedlander, Lukas Haas, Julianna Margulies, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, DB Sweeney, Robin Tunney, and Wilmer Valderrama.
It is fun, it is entertaining, but it is insubstantial. I actually found it funnier to read the true stories than to see them played out. Still, I did laugh at the recreated antics. This is really a lesser movie that is worthy of a rental at most.
Audio/Video. The copy I have is a promo copy, not one completely representative of the final production version. It did look and sound decent, nothing to complain about, but I would not swear that what you see will be exactly the same.
Extras. The few extras included are pretty much worthless. There is a brief six minute fluffy making of featurette, and a few brief (in some cases very brief) interview clips with the actors that don't really offer much. A commentary would have been nice.
Bottom line. This was fun, but insubstantial. If you are looking for some light entertainment, you could do much worse. There are laughs to be had, and the Burrows character proves to be much more interesting than he has any right to be. So, don't make any bad decisions on your way to checking it out.