Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen
Even if you went into As Good as Dead without the knowledge that it made its premiere as a made-for-USA-network film, even casual viewers unaware of Cohen’s career could quickly figure out that fact. From the generic thriller title to the mostly anemic casting (save a little edginess provided by a welcome, but under-used, Traci Lords), the film telegraphs its modest ambitions and cheap production values during the opening credits.
Susan (Crystal Bernard) is an office drone who has moved to Los Angeles in the wake of her mother’s death. Abandoned by her father when she was a little girl, she has no siblings and no friends. Naïve and unschooled in the ways of shallow Los Angeles culture, she is introduced being turned away from a nightclub because of the frumpy office clothing she is wearing.
Nicole (Lords) is a makeup artist who lives for fashion, booze, and fun. Literally bumping into Susan, she takes a shine to her and tries to upend her new friend’s wallflower lifestyle.
But it turns out Nicole has a dark secret—namely, a stomach ulcer (just go with it). When her ulcer flares up to the point she has to go to the emergency room, Susan decides to help out her uninsured friend by letting her use her identity and insurance to pay for the visit and the surgery that the doctors determine she needs. But things quickly go awry when Nicole dies during the surgery, effectively taking Susan’s identity with her.
But why wouldn’t Susan be able to prove that she’s not dead? For one thing, she doesn’t relish the possibility of prison time that comes with insurance fraud. For another, Nicole’s death was caused by the hospital giving her the wrong blood type during the surgery. Not sure if their ruse somehow contributed to this mix up, Susan gets it in her head that she could possibly face manslaughter charges. But when Susan finds out that a brother she does not have has shown up to sue the hospital, she takes on Nicole’s identity—and slinky wardrobe—to find out if her death was an accident or an elaborate murder.
The premise is pure Cohen. But working under the budgetary and content restrictions of basic cable keeps him from realizing the full potential of such an entertaining set up. The resulting film is like watching a juggler try to perform while handcuffed.
The first problem comes in the casting. While Bernard is not horrible as Susan, she is at least ten years too old to be playing a wet behind the ears 24-year-old. She is also a touch too bland for a Cohen lead. As written, Susan is a plucky heroine trying to solve her friend’s possible murder while getting herself out of trouble. Bernard largely ignores the comedy inherent in the absurdity Susan faces and plays her as a humorless scold, constantly surprised by the immorality and selfishness of the fine citizens of Los Angeles. While some second act twists and turns keep the audience on Susan’s side, Bernard’s performance never allows her to become a character the audience actively roots for. By the end of the film, Susan should be endearing. Instead, she is simply less insufferable than she was at the start.
Even more annoying than Bernard is Judge Reinhold (top-billed, even though he doesn’t show up until the halfway point) as Ron, a mystery man who comes to Susan’s aid. Is he really just a Good Samaritan with a crush on our protagonist or is he involved in Nicole’s death? That question is hardly worth the audience’s consideration since Reinhold obviously doesn’t care. Alternating between expressions of boredom and annoyance (at one point, he looks just to the side of the camera like he could kill a member of the crew), Reinhold brings the film to a screeching halt whenever he shows up.
What is especially frustrating about Reinhold’s performance (or lack thereof) is that Ron fits into the mold of a long line of Cohen’s male leads. His dialogue is sarcastic and irreverent. He reacts to Susan’s often confusing actions (she keeps the truth from him as long as she can) with bemusement that he uses to shamelessly flirt with her. And his true motivations are kept hidden from the audience until the last possible moment. But unlike Michael Moriarty, John P. Ryan, or Tony Lo Bianco, Reinhold doesn’t take the opportunity to run with his character and chew some scenery. He sleepwalks through the film, never providing the comedic punch or potential danger that he is supposed to supply.
The other major problem with the film is how toothless the thriller elements are. Adhering to basic cable standards and practices, the film understandably has to keep certain elements in check. With that in mind, I understand why the violence is largely bloodless and characters say “shoot” when much stronger words are called for. Unfortunately, Susan’s backstory of being abandoned by her father and the circumstances surrounding Nicole’s death bring up some ideas and themes that would be better off being presented in a more lurid manner. The film would have been stronger had these elements been more fully explored, but Cohen shies away from plunging into territory that would have pushed the 1995 basic cable envelope. Oddly enough, His other made-for-TV film, 1981’s See China and Die, tackles adult material in a more straightforward manner and feels like an actual Cohen film. Whether he chose to hold back or was ordered to do so by the network is unknown.
The film works best when Cohen adds in fun little flourishes with bit characters: a hotel bellhop is way too chipper and eager to help, a hospital lab tech seems to be having an anxiety attack for unknown reasons, and a police officer at a crime scene has a hair trigger that goes off when asked a simple, seemingly innocent question. Cohen casts these parts with interesting looking performers, never going for blandly good looking models-turned-actors. Even Lords transcends what feels like stunt casting to have some fun turning her party girl into a sympathetic young woman with some odd quirks. I just wish the efforts of the supporting cast had been contagious, but Bernard’s miscalculations and Reinhold’s check-cashing turn make much of the film a chore to sit through.
As Good as Dead is obvious and mostly lackluster. But it’s also a sad project for what it represents: the final film written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen. While he worked as a director-for-hire on Original Gangstas after this, he never again had this much control over a production. In many ways, the independent film renaissance of the early ‘90s were a curse to him. The films being financed tended to be intimate art-house fare and there didn’t seem to be any room in the new independent film scene for movies like The Ambulance or The Stuff. Yes, he has continued on as a screenwriter-for-hire, but it is sad to see that the final two directorial efforts from a man who was once so fearless in his storytelling were so tepid.
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