The Misfortunates

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 1, 2010

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Grade: B-

Opens Fri., June 4

Let me respectfully offer a suggestion, future memoirists: if you were once the boring center of a wild bacchanalia, why not focus exclusively on the wild bacchanalia part? It’s very likely that that aspect, not your banal “personal growth,” is where an audience of strangers’ true interest lies.

Dimitri Verhulst, who overcame a childhood of foster parents and institutions to become a novelist, has claimed his popular The Misfortunates is semi-autobiographical. And it’s a great subject. As in the book, the film version, energetically adapted by director Felix Van Groeningen and cowriter Christophe Dirickx, concerns 13-year-old Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden), growing up in a dilapidated Belgian house with his boozing, developmentally arrested father (Koen de Graeve) and his three equally debauched uncles.

These aren’t Will Ferrell's man-children. An ornery lot, they’re temperamental and prone to violence on people (within the first minutes, a guy gets stabbed in the throat with a broken bottle), animals (a bird shits on the drying laundry, gets shot), objects (a chair is slowly destroyed, in an apparent homage to the same scene in Gummo) and, of course, beer.

That they all live with (and ritualistically ignore) their addled, elderly mother completes the portrait of terminal adolescence. The Misfortunates views their catalogue of depravity with a deftly balanced mix of fascination and fear, sucking up the fetid surroundings to the point where you half expect the theaters to pump in nicotine stench à la gimmick auteur William Castle.

But what of young Gunther? Flash-forwards show us our narrator-protagonist when he’s older (and played with grave reserve by Valentijn Dhaaenens) doing considerably better, trying to sell novels and awaiting the birth of a son he doesn’t want with a woman he doesn’t love. Will he turn out just like his shitty father?

Frankly, who cares? Perhaps a film that spends its entirety rolling around in filth would be too much—although one can imagine what Emir Kustirica, of such madcap Eastern European brawlers as Underground , would do with this source material—but there has to be another angle of attack than this mopey, narcissistic bullshit. After two acts spent mostly bottling up the surroundings, the fun ends and the remainder crawls into multiple-endings mode. You know what would fix that? Focusing on the good stuff.

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