Wellness

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I get the feeling “Wellness” is supposed to be an awkward, sad comedy about a hapless fellow who just can’t catch a break. The problem, then, is that it’s rarely actually funny, and the story of the poor guy who can’t catch a break is bleak and depressing. There’s never any payoff, no relief, no redemption. What did this tragic character do to deserve such treatment?

His name is Thomas Lindsey, and the film’s best attribute is the outstanding performance by unknown actor Jeff Clark in the lead. Thomas is middle-aged with a wife and kids back home, and he’s currently driving around Pennsylvania trying to find investors for Wellness, a revolutionary new health product. Or at least it’s supposed to be. Thomas, not a great salesman to begin with, isn’t exactly clear on the particulars about Wellness. All he knows is that he’ll never make his own investment back if he doesn’t recruit others to sell it.

Yes, it’s a multi-level marketing scheme, and like 99 percent of all people who get involved with MLMs, Thomas is in the process of getting royally screwed. His hard-nosed supervisor, Paul (Paul Mahaffy), has joined him briefly to see how he’s doing and give him tips on salesmanship — and, it should be noted, to pick up Thomas’ own last bit of buy-in money.

We see the handwriting on the wall long before Thomas does, and Clark’s disheveled, naturalistic performance lets us see Thomas’ painful realization process. He’s a good, honest man who’s now trapped in a business where good, honest men cannot succeed. It’s no world for a guy like him.

There is a little comedy in Thomas’ hopeless attempts to explain a product he’s never seen, and we can laugh sorrowfully at the unprofessional-looking fliers he slaps together for a seminar (“PARADIGM SHIFT!!!!” one declares, as if that means anything).

Writer/director Jake Mahaffy (son of the actor who plays Paul) uses realistic dialogue and a verite shooting style to give the film something close to a documentary feel. This is marvelously effective at drawing us in to Thomas’ miserable life, which is made all the more depressing by the slushy, wintry towns in which the film was shot.

The question is why. Why are we watching this? What is the point of it all? What lesson are we meant to learn? Thomas has little in the way of a character arc apart from slowly accepting his sad fate, and though there is some small poignance in Thomas’ symbolic hobby of collecting empty hornets’ nests — like Wellness, the nests have no intrinsic value and have been abandoned by their creators — that’s hardly enough to supply the film’s theme all on its own. In the end, “Wellness” is all tragedy and no catharsis.

C (1 hr., 30 min.; Not Rated, probably R for scattered harsh profanity.)