[SXSW Review] 'Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break' Entertains, but Falters in its Twisting of the Revenge Formula
There’s nothing more satisfying than a good revenge flick...
...The blueprint is thus: give the audience a sympathetic and likable main character, put them through something awful, then watch that person’s blood-filled quest to put the wrong things right. Is the morality presented by these films simplistic? Sure. Do they deaden our feelings towards the real-life impact of violence? Sometimes, but not always (see Jeremy Saulnier’s fantastic Blue Ruin). Can they offer us catharsis while we live in a society that consistently feels unjust? As my 10th grade math teacher used to say, you bet your bippy they can. From Mandy to Revenge to the John Wick franchise, we’ve had some fine films in the past few years that have given us an outlet for our collective need to see bad people get their comeuppance.
Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, which premiered this week at SXSW, feels like a movie that would be at home amongst the ones just mentioned, at least in the beginning. It follows the first two steps in the revenge film formula beautifully, giving us a loveable everyman who endures a genuinely heartbreaking situation that should have easily led to a crowd-pleasing, viscera-drenched climax. Instead, it's bogged down by hit-or-miss humor, gigantic gaps in logic, and weak attempts at social commentary. It has ample heart, which certainly makes it watchable, but its inability to deliver a fulfilling ending will leave many viewers disappointed.
Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) is a dreamer. The combination singer, actor, and dancer has his sights set on winning a nationally televised talent show and making it big as a performer. Backed by his mother/number one fan Julie (June Watson), the mild-mannered thrift shop employee spends his free time preparing for his big moment in front of the cameras. But when a series of events leads to Paul missing his coveted audition AND the death of his mother, the broken Dood decides to seek vengeance against the people who took everything away from him.
From the jump Paul Dood and its title character drip with charm. Meeten plays the man with a sincerity that makes his awkward sweetness feel genuine. We’ve all known a guy like this (a few of us might even be him): someone who wholeheartedly believes in a dream that seems impossible to realize, yet still reaches for it despite the grim reality that it is unlikely to ever happen. Watching the relationship between Dood and his mother, one of the few friends he has and certainly the only one in the world who believes in him, quickly builds an emotional foundation to the film that’s surprisingly effective.
The escalation towards Dood eventually missing his audition is executed quite well too. The people he encounters who help in the dashing of his dreams are easy to hate because they feel so true to life. They’re petty, self-absorbed, and appear to be completely incapable of having empathy for others, so when his heartbreak and humiliation blossom in front of us and Dood finally decides to take his retribution, you can’t help but get behind him. As the Margaret Atwood quote that opens the film states, “If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged,” so it feels safe to assume that Dood is about to become the avenger we’ve all occasionally wished we could be when faced with the worst aspects of society.
Having set up the pins for Paul’s revenge beautifully, it’s all the more frustrating when director and co-writer Nick Gillespie fails to knock them down. Initially the direction the movie goes seems promising (Dood is more of a Grim Reaper by way of Mister Magoo than John Wick) but the cleverness of this angle gets lost in some head-scratching storytelling decisions made as the film progresses. Its tone is all over the place in its second and third acts, at times sporting the quirky indie black-comedy vibes it starts out with but then veering off into uneven sophomoric humor and weird bouts of grittiness (one moment you’ll see a couple of old ladies cracking dick jokes like they’ve walked out of a mid-aughts teen comedy, the next you’ll see a priest and nun get slowly crushed to death by a steamroller). What’s more, Dood gets completely lost amongst a slew of side characters that are infinitely less interesting than he is, completely squandering all the work that was put into making him so likeable in the first place.
The movie seems to be critiquing society’s present-day obsession with achieving fame through social media influence, but whatever argument it’s trying to make feels pretty toothless by the film’s end. The idea that platforms like Twitter or Tik Tok are turning us all into recognition-starved lunatics who would step over our own mothers for a little time in the spotlight is certainly valid, but unfortunately this movie doesn’t add anything new to that conversation.
In the end Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break is entertaining enough, thanks in large part to Tom Meeten’s performance and that damn steamroller kill (it’s chef’s kiss levels of gnarly), but feels as if it could have been so much more. Sometimes playing with genre conventions can lend a freshness to a film that otherwise might have come off as formulaic. In this movie’s case, however, staying a little closer to what makes the revenge-motif so effective might have been a good idea.
By Patrick Brennan
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