While seemingly benign in the animated realm, nursing homes outside of “The Simpsons” are undeniably tragic. Due to a bevy of tell-all articles, Barbara Walters-narrated TV specials and horror-story hearsay, it’s now common knowledge that these dungeons for discarded generations are absolutely dreadful. Naturally, for any inspired filmmaker, such wrenching sadness is lush fodder for cinema. Pallid scrubs, gaping mouths wheeled down linoleum runways and cruel institutionalism make for a good movie. And that movie was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
While Elliot Greenebaum’s melodramatic “Assisted Living” may leech much of its elder’s artistic vision, the 2005 doppelganger manages to sculpt its own approach to vilifying these white-walled prisons. Greenebaum’s ultimate aim for his scanty film (a mere 77 minutes long) is to provide a visceral snapshot of an appalling world. If all had gone to plan, the audience would alternate between audible gasps and hysterical sobs. Instead, Greenebaum’s creative monotony condemns his film’s audience to the same banality as its subjects — by the time the credits roll, everyone has a glazed-over stupor.
The film begins with a grainy digital introduction to its boring characters. The cheap cinematography and so-called mockumentary format are annoyingly insincere. The workers of the nursing home — a real home in Kentucky where the movie was filmed — prattle on about their jobs and a former employee, while never breaking their pedestrian demeanor and Southern vocal cadence. Apparently, there has been a problem at the home of late, and the culprit is none other than the perpetually stoned Todd (Michael Bonsignore).
Todd makes the idea of turning 30 terrifying. His shared apartment is a cesspool of soiled clothing and fake-bohemian squalor. His orchestrated messy hair and perennial five o’clock shadow are supposed to indicate a deplorable lifestyle. Essentially, Todd is intended to be the polar opposite to the home’s oppressive sterility. He’s dirty, he’s young and his drugs are illegal.
Glorifying its own mundane plot and style, “Assisted Living” hardly feels solid. Todd finds leisure in smoking in front of a cartoon mural (a weak visual juxtaposition) and feeding grandparents bogus phone calls from heaven. Until the beautiful and senile Mrs. Pearlman — Maggie Riley, the film’s emotional heart — wheels into his life, the film might as well be footage for a “20/20” news story.
Wincing over her loneliness and longing for a phone call from her son (who is dubiously located in Australia), Mrs. Pearlman gifts Todd with unsolicited maternal love. She incessantly calls him into her room solely for his comforting presence until he becomes her son in her diseased mind.
After cheating her way through a heated round of Bingo, Pearlman wins a highly desirable pair of wraparound sunglasses to shield her child’s eyes from the pernicious Australian sun. But her desperation soon causes Todd to buckle, and he decides to continue his benevolent gag with the Alzheimer’s-inflicted elder. Todd even calls Mrs. Pearlman, feigning to be her son, leaving the miserable old woman in a frenzy.
After this emotional climax, the film slowly floats down to a predictable and unfulfilling ending. It’s rather unfortunate that “Assisted Living” fails to engage its audience, but it’s even more of a letdown that the film delivers little more than derivative style and redundant imagery. I suppose one could be euphemistic and say that the film attempts to portray nursing home horrors on a more conceptual plane. With relentless minimalism and boring verisimilitude, it attempts to abstract the experience into a single rolling image. But the message is lost among amateurish blurry editing and frame after frame of comatose, paper-skinned seniors.
To be fair, the film does have its few merits. The acting, while hardly superlative, achieves a raw style that snuggly fits into the film’s mundane vision. And before devolving into a cheap gimmick, the imagery has its potency. Greenebaum maximizes the visual disparity between the rotting elderly and the disturbingly barren home. Through such a deft juxtaposition, the film successfully compares the temporality of age and the timelessness of the home.
Other than that, “Assisted Living” is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps Greenebaum’s greatest artistic achievement is recreating the very insipid environment that the film vilifies. All said, the film is in need of euthanasia.