“Waking Up Dead” is an emotionally flatlining romantic dramedy that can’t decide if it would rather be a glib gloss of shallow actors and their shallow lives, or a glib gloss of the struggles that might be hidden beneath all that.
The attempts at humor come closer to the mark, but even they are undercut by drab acting, tepid jokes and pedestrian blocking, direction and editing. The fact that the lighter scenes are mostly music-free forces us to consider the impoverished nature of the production.
Gabriel Sousa plays Danny Maldonado, a hunky gay actor who’s cut a wide swath through Hollywood — sexually. He’s always cheated on his longtime beau Eddy (Caio Ara), hooking up at that gym, scrolling Grindr when he isn’t dodging creditor’s calls.
His professional frustrations might be embodied by that one time someone thinks she recognizes him on the street. She keeps ticking off credits, and he knows exactly who she’s talking about — a different Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American actor than him. He’s going crazy that there’s basically “one other Dominican actor in town,” and he’s the one who keeps getting the call-backs.
But at least casting people know how to buck a guy up. They remember roles.
“Everyone still talks about your arc as a narcoleptic rapist on ‘S.V.U.'”
Phyllis, his agent, sees him as “35” trying to pass for “in my 20s” and is ready to hang up and just give up.
And then, the house of cards, the illusion that is his “life,” comes crashing down around him. Eddy kicks him out, he resorts to house-sitting for friends who didn’t leave the place stocked, so he’s stuck arranging Grindr hook-ups who will “Send me an Uber” to get o deliver him, or who must show up with “Toilet paper and a snack.”
His life coach friend (Patricia McKenzie) struggles to help. This British ex-pat real estate agent (Judy Geeson of “To Sir With Love”) who used to act tries to buck him up, and fellow actress Ilana (Cody Renee Cameron) focuses on the positive.
It’s just that the work isn’t coming and the calls keep pouring in collection agents and from the sister “who raised me” (Angelic Zambrana) that their ex-junky mother is dying.
What’s a lad to do? Aside from swiping left or right, vaping a little weed and sharing some more blow?
A call telling him that the queen of soapy/sexy episode TV, Shonda Rhimes, wants him for a pilot comes just in time. Danny was ineptly trying to hang himself.
All he has to do is master the finer points of playing a pre-operation transgender surgeon with multiple lovers and he can turn it around, clean “up my life,” give back, “make some changes” and all that.
“Just don’t go into recovery,” his coke-sharing agent (ex porn star Traci Lords) quips. “It makes people boring.“
The flippant dialogue and running gags are what could carry the day here. Danny runs out of soap and shampoo at the place he’s house-sitting, and everybody wants to know why his cologne smells like “Cascade,””Palmolive” or “Ajax?”
But the picture’s sharp turn towards shame, despair and “karma” punctures that balloon. Whatever truths are tapped into about broken people desperate to perform are lost in tearless cliches about difficult childhoods excusing destructive narcissism as adults.
The editor turned writer-director Terracino doesn’t have the budget to show much flair behind the camera. And the dialogue and plotting have a clumsiness that makes one wonder if the camera set-ups and blocking are indeed give-aways that we’re watching a student film.
“Waking Up Dead” is a bit better than that. And if the entire enterprise had been a dark comedy, it would certainly have played more smoothly and consistently, even if “hilariously” was always out of reach.
Rating: unrated, drug abuse, violence, sex, nudity, profanity
Cast: Gabriel Sousa, Traci Lords, Angelic Zambrana, Judy Geeson, Caio Ara, Cody Renee Cameron, Patricia McKenzie
Credits: Scripted and directed by Terracino. A Breaking Glass release.
Running time: 1:17