Blu-ray Review: ‘The Little Death’ Is A Good First Directorial Debut For Josh Lawson

I’m not sure the world was clamoring for a raunchy Australian update of Love, Actually, in which the will they-won’t they at the center of each vignette is not whether the couple will end up together but whether one partner’s fetish will destroy the relationship, but in The Little Death we’ve got one, and, hey, it’s not half bad. The Little Death strikes a tricky balance between edginess and sympathy that keeps things approachable and surprisingly light even when dealing with a topic as potentially repellent as rape fantasies. Few tendencies in contemporary comedy are more tedious and off-putting than the common conflation of offensiveness and hilariousness. Writer-director Josh Lawson is smart enough to realize that a woman’s rape fantasy is not inherently funny, but it may become so if the joke is about her adoring boyfriend’s sincere and elaborate attempts to fulfill that fantasy for her as an act of love.

The rape fantasy is one of five storylines, each focusing on a couple with a particular fetish. At the urging of a couples therapist, a husband and wife indulge in role-playing that leads the husband to consider an acting career. In the single funniest vignette, a wife discovers she becomes sexually aroused when she sees her husband cry, after which she does everything she can to make him weep, to his bafflement. (“You thought I wanted a hand job while I thought about my dead dad?!”) A henpecked husband finds he is more attracted to his wife when she is asleep. And a telephone sign language interpreter feels a spark with one of her clients when he uses her to translate a call to phone sex chat line. These stories are threaded together extremely loosely by one of the film’s best recurring jokes, a charming man who delivers golliwog cookies to his neighbors, who become so lost in nostalgic reverie that they scarcely notice when he reveals the true purpose of his visit: a legal obligation to announce himself a registered sex offender.

These threads all work because Lawson grounds them in realistic relationships. These couples are all either in love or have been in love, and that adds a touch of poignancy to the film, even at its silliest. The fetishes are integrated into the dramatic structure of the relationships so that the rape fantasy becomes about that couple’s devotion to each other, the man’s somnophilia becomes about his insecurities around his wife, etc. The ensemble cast shines by playing everything straight, and Lawson’s direction is similarly deadpan. Everything is acted and directed like a drama with just a subtle tinge of the ironic.

Unfortunately, Lawson is better at constructing these premises than at following through with them. The characters are rarely fleshed out any further than is necessary to execute the premises. Each storyline pretty much peters out without any real dramatic or comedic resolution. (This is one advantage Love, Actually has over The Little Death — it is easier to construct the end to a budding romance than to a story about a relationship in midstream.) Overall, The Little Death is pretty lumpy, with most of the biggest laughs clumped toward the beginning. And in the end, the film drops all the balls it’s juggling to focus on a 20-minute phone sex sequence, making this more like a 70-minute movie with a 20-minute short film tacked on the end. But that’s not such a bad thing because that sequence is quite good, a self-contained piece that is funny, a little sweet, and slightly sad. Even if The Little Death never quite reaches climax, it’s still a good time along the way.

The Little Death on Blu-ray™, DVD and digital rental/download from Magnolia Home Entertainment on Tuesday, October 13.

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