By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Movies such as "It's a Wonderful Life," have explored the subject of a life re-examined when contemplating suicide, but Courteney Cox takes a darkly comic approach to that life-or-death question in her feature film directorial debut.
The story of a vacant, aimless pet store worker named Ted who decides he is "done" with life, "Just Before I Go" begins with the dejected 40-year-old bobbing underwater while narrating his tale of woe on the soundtrack. The film then travels back in time several weeks to explore just how he got there.
Ted, played by "American Pie" veteran Seann William Scott, embarks on an odyssey back to his Massachusetts hometown to confront childhood tormenters who range via flashback from an extortionist jock bully to a nasty math teacher who relishes cruelly humiliating the boy in front his classmates.
But Ted's journey becomes a tale of the unexpected. The bully has evolved into a sensitive, remorseful widower raising a son with Down Syndrome on his own. And the math teacher lies in a stupor in an institution as Ted unleashes a volley of pent-up rage, only to be interrupted by the woman's granddaughter, (Olivia Thirlby), who decides to film Ted's suicidal saga.
Hollywood veterans Connie Stevens and Diane Ladd are also on hand as Ted's mother and an Elvis impersonator, respectively.
"It's a heartfelt story, but it's also outrageously funny, so I was very attracted to the tone of it," said Cox, 49, best known for her days as Monica on hit comedy "Friends," and now starring in the sitcom "Cougar Town," for which she has directed some episodes.
"What makes me laugh in real life is anything inappropriate," added Cox, who is also one of the producers of the independent film, which premiered Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
'HOW TO TALK TO ACTORS'
The inappropriate and politically incorrect loom large in the script written by her friend David Flebotte.
There is a running bit about a sleepwalking masturbator and more mentions of a crude word for female genitalia than have appeared in just about any Hollywood film. Even the kids get to say it - but again, it is played for laughs.
Gabe Cowan, another of the producers, noted that 12 of the 17 films he has made were with first-time directors, like Cox.
"There is a very special quality to somebody's first film, and you see that in 'Just Before I Go,'" he said.
Cox said being an experienced actress helped on what she described as an especially collaborative, budget-conscious shoot, which only took 22 days.
"I know exactly how to talk to actors," she told Reuters. "I understand what they need, so I think it's easier."
"And I know what bugs me, and I'm a really empathetic person, so I think it's a perfect combination of being able to understand what they're going through, and guide and help them."
Her cast, she added, was only too happy to return the favor.
"When you do a movie like this with a very, very low budget, you're doing it strictly because you love the material - or you love me. These are all my friends," she laughed.
But Cox said that budget did have its challenges, such as mandating that the film set in Massachusetts be shot in Los Angeles. "That was one of the hardest things, actually, to find a place in L.A. that doesn't have a palm tree."
Now that she has had a dose of the director's chair, Cox says she is determined to maintain her position behind the cameras.
"This is my thing, for sure," she averred, adding that she doesn't really foresee taking on an action film.
"It will definitely be a character piece, maybe a thriller. But I like simple stories - the real kind of stuff."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and G Crosse)