Overview: A group of film buffs is recruited by the Yakuza to make a movie out of their raid on a rival group. Drafthouse Films; 2014; Not Rated; 129 Minutes
The Real: “We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastical. At this rate, reality is going to lose!” I could tell you the context for that line, but it would hardly matter. The series of events leading up to it are impressively convoluted, and describing the plot of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a fool’s errand. Why, it’s almost as though the film wants you to forget about its narrative and focus primarily on its thematic elements. For instance, the notion of a battle between reality and fantasy, the latter in this case referring to cinema. The film shifts into fantasy sequences without telling us, only tipping us off when the sequence is over and we snap back to the scene that preceded it. A real event is to be shot and turned into a movie, but the act of shooting it makes it unreal. In an early scene, a badly wounded hitman is found stumbling down an alley by a group of teenaged film buffs. They start filming him, and without even being asked he exaggerates his injuries for dramatic effect. The question of cinematic truth is complex to say the least, but don’t tell that to this film. It slices up the film-reality barrier with a katana and then blasts it with a machine gun for good measure.
The Meta: It’s hard to get into those meta-textual elements without spending hundreds of words on plot summary, so I’ll leave it at that. In any case, I had a ton of fun with this movie, and not just because the aforementioned themes are right in my wheelhouse. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the most consistently funny movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s heightened and self-aware, but not self-conscious. There’s never a moment where the movie steps back and says, “Haha, I know this looks silly, but we’re just kidding around here.” This movie commits to its goofiness, and it’s all the more fun for it. This really comes across in the performances. It can be tough to get a handle on a performance when it’s in a foreign language, but these actors are so emphatic in their expressions and line deliveries that no one should have any trouble with them. I was reminded over and over again of House, another Japanese film with a humorous take on cinematic theory. House is one of my all-time favorite films, and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is one of my favorite films of 2014.
Wrap-Up: Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a fascinating examination of cinema’s relationship to reality and a raucous kick in the head to film enthusiasts everywhere.