The Darwin Awards

Of course you know what the Darwin Awards are. They’re sarcastic honors given to people who die because of their own stupidity, thus taking themselves out of the gene pool and strengthening the human race. Curiously, the movie “The Darwin Awards” will probably deserve a Darwin Award itself after dying quietly at the box office and thus strengthening the art of filmmaking in general.

Writer/director Finn Taylor (whose “Cherish” was one of the highlights of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival) started with an amusing idea: He wanted to re-create some of the more famous Darwin Award stories, like the guy who died when he toppled a vending machine over on himself, or the guy who attached a rocket to his car and blasted into the side of a mountain, or the dumb woman who thought “cruise control” meant the RV would drive itself. (None of those events actually happened, by the way. Just because someone sent it to you in an e-mail doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, the opposite is usually the case.)

True or not, the incidents make for amusing stories (unless you’ve heard them before and already know how they end), but Taylor has folded them into a very dull plot starring the very dull Joseph Fiennes as Michael Burrows, a profiler for the San Francisco Police Department who loses his job after letting a bad guy get away in a rather embarrassing fashion.

In need of new employment, Michael, who follows the Darwin Awards as a hobby, gets the idea that perhaps certain characteristics of Darwin candidates can be predicted, and that if insurance companies knew what the risk factors were, they could avoid insuring those people and save millions in settlements. He convinces an insurance company to back him, and he sets out to interview Darwinian types to find out what, if anything, they all have in common.

Now, if I were the head of that insurance company, I’d have said: “But aren’t most of the Darwin Awards for apocryphal events that never happened? Aren’t 90 percent of them just urban legends?” And then I would have called security to escort Mr. Burrows out of the building.

Anyway, Michael is sent out into the field, accompanied by the insurance company’s top claims investigator, Siri Tyler (Winona Ryder). Where Michael is overly cautious, safety minded and afraid to do anything unusual, Siri is spontaneous and fun. In a development that is the very definition of “obligatory,” they fall in love.

Taylor’s script goes so wrong in so many places that it should be studied in film schools. For example, Michael is constantly being shadowed by a documentary filmmaker (Wilmer Valderrama). Why? It never figures into the story; he’s always just there. For most of the movie, Taylor very clearly goes out of his way not to show us the filmmaker’s face. And then finally we see it … without fanfare, without a pay-off, as if he’d never been hiding it in the first place.

There’s also the fact that in some cases, Michael and Siri are obviously traveling alone, with no one else in the car, yet somehow when they arrive, the filmmaker is with them.

And what about that serial killer, the one Michael accidentally let go at the beginning? Despite his face having been caught on tape, no one in the SFPD has been able to find him. Yet when Michael finally locates him, it’s right there in San Francisco, in the same neighborhood as all the crimes were committed. The guy never left town. So, um, why wasn’t he arrested months ago?

In closing, let us mention Metallica. One of the Darwin stories re-created is of two dim bulbs trying to climb over a wall to sneak into an outdoor concert. To tell the story, you don’t need to show the band in question. You don’t even have to tell us which band it is. But since Taylor managed to get Metallica to appear in the film, he keeps cutting to shots of them performing, interrupting the flow of the semi-amusing Darwin story he’s trying to tell.

The band appears offstage, too, after the concert, probably because their contracts demanded a certain amount of screen time and Taylor — willing to shoot his movie in the foot if it would get a big name like Metallica involved — went along with it.

I liked “Cherish” a lot, Taylor, so I’m giving you a pass on “The Darwin Awards.” But if you keep tying rockets to the roofs of your movies, you’re going to find them splattered against the side of a mountain. I’m just sayin’.

C (1 hr., 33 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some violence and blood, some strong sexuality.)