The Worst Year of My Life, a new romantic drama from budding writer/director Jonathan Smith, was reportedly made on a $15,000 budget. It probably set some sort of record for most individual scenes in an 80-minute feature – quite an accomplishment given the financial restraints – but Smith should have been shooting for dramatic quality, rather than quantity, in a film with middle-school level acting, tired plotting and misanthropic characters who are very difficult to root for. The production value is impressive; unfortunately, it is also one of the only commendable things to say about this dopey, dour story about a failed relationship.
Although tailored for release on Valentine’s Day weekend, The Worst Year of My Life has an irredeemable bitter streak, focusing on the aftermath of a three-year stint between stand-up comic Kyle (Trevor St. John David) and computer programmer Amber (Amy Vorpahl). Smith speeds through the meet-cute, the move-in and the clichéd photo booth poses in record time, trying his best to encapsulate in the opening 10 minutes what made this coupling last.
However, the moments are both stilted and rushed: David and Vorpahl lack a natural chemistry, while the expository dialogue that interrupts the flow of the montage often sounds rehearsed and feels too compressed to arrive in the moment naturally. The plot thickens when Amber, who has already shirked Kyle out of most of his savings to open a vegan bakery, decides to cheat on him with Todd (Nicholas Tucci), a sleazy guy whose only discernible feature is that he is also vegan. Kyle discovers emails of their illicit affair and decides to end things with Amber – just a week before a planned wedding proposal.
Much of the rest of The Worst Year in My Life jumps back and forth between even more flashbacks from this doomed union and Kyle’s sessions with a therapist, Jennifer (Cate Beehan). Considering that Kyle is broke and has friends who allow him to crash at their homes, it is peculiar that he has to pay to seek advice about trying to patch things up with Amber. Unfortunately, these therapy scenes, shot in a nondescript office that looks like it was borrowed from the set of a low-budget adult film, are quite dull.
Jennifer resembles the “one-dimensional female character in a male-driven comedy” sketch creation from the present season of Saturday Night Live, in that she has no personality, dresses unprofessionally and gives a few pouty stares when she takes off her glasses. She merely exists to be a tool for the protagonist to open up about his love life. Even less convincing than Beehan’s portrayal of a psychologist is David’s depiction of a stand-up comic. He is briefly shown performing in a club, but his demeanor is bitter and standoffish. Neither filled with insights about the way humans treat each other, nor sociable toward other people, Kyle’s choice of profession makes little sense
By the 15-minute mark, it is clear that despite their initial years of fondness for each other, Kyle and Amber are wrong for each other. Despite this acknowledgment, the film spends the next hour trying to stay with their relationship and force it back together. As a result, the pacing slacks and our investment wanes.
The film’s writer/director is brimming with some imaginative ideas. In some delightfully absurd asides that suggest Smith has seen Annie Hall a few hundred times, the filmmaker cuts to a “Dating Game” sequence on an old TV and adds the characters to the set, to help explain Kyle’s feelings of rage at the end of the relationship. He later choreographs a rapidly edited boxing match between Amber and her foe Rona (Brandie Posey), as well as a nifty evening news segment, to externalize their competition over a man.
But for every offbeat, mildly original tangent into a fantasy universe, there are five clichés that the film fails to dramatize in an intriguing way. When Kyle finds out about the cheating, he punches a wall in agony. (Smith then slices the scene into jump cuts and blurry angles as Kyle pants around his apartment.) When the lovebirds eventually part ways, he blurs the shot as soon as the actors let go of each other’s hands. In an earlier scene, Kyle decides to break out the engagement ring on the beach, with the blazing sun in the background capturing Amber in a dreamy haze.
Many of the actors’ IMDB pages are filled with bit parts on TV shows and uncredited extra work, which means The Worst Year of My Life is now their best chance of getting more scenes onto an audition reel. To their detriment, the performances leave much to be desired, especially David and Verpohl, who often fail to bring to the surface recognizable human emotion when going through moments of immense pleasure or pain. When Kyle calls Amber with news that he is getting laid off, she responds with a passionless “Oh no!” that would draw titters from a high-school drama class.
David, meanwhile, is often reduced to slumping in his seat, moaning about his tattered love life. The actor slogs through extraneous dialogue that could have been better communicated with a look or an action. (Instead of showing their feelings, characters often say what is on their minds in a jarringly unnatural way.) Verpohl’s near-robotic line readings make her even more unsympathetic than Smith’s screenplay, which demeans her as a heartless, emotionally inept, needy, impulsive woman. With such offensive characterization, the lead actors often look aimless, searching for direction that Smith fails to provide.
Even with a tiny budget, The Worst Year of My Life has ambition, but limp acting, unoriginal story beats and lifeless characterization mires its scope.