What is the key to a happy life?
Some people will tell you it’s companionship. Others say happiness can be measured in success. Then, of course, there are those who believe money can bring you joy, and their counterparts who firmly say it can’t.
It’s a lot to navigate, and ironically, figuring it out isn’t very fun.
Luckily, you don’t have to do it alone. Somewhere in the last hundred years or so, a new profession has popped up with the sole purpose to help you help yourself. I’m talking about self-help gurus.
Sure, the idea of a self-help guide isn’t really that new. Humans have been telling each other how to live since the beginning of time. Heck, even Aristotle had opinions on the matter. But there’s no denying that the idea of radical self-improvement has only ramped up in the modern age and with increasingly quirky “shticks.” From the “massive actions” of Tony Robbins to the power of Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking,” today’s self-help gurus are all about selling you their particular recipe for happiness.
It worked for them, after all, so why couldn’t it work for you?
Writer/director Staten Cousins Roe takes this idea of extreme self-help to its hilarious and bloody conclusion in his new film A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE.
The film opens on an interview with famed self-help expert Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). Everyone wants to be like him, he tells the interviewer. His advice? “The first thing you gotta do, you gotta read the book.” You have to get to know him. “You gotta think like me. You gotta act like me. You gotta breath like me.” But for Chuck, the real secret to his success is “be yourself.” “Be me, then be yourself.”
“You can’t be me,” he confesses to the camera, “but you can be like me.”
It’s strange advice, but it seems to be working on the directionless Lou (Katie Brayben). She listens to soothing self-help recordings on her way to work, she reads the books, but for all the advice she’s consuming, she doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. She still lives at home with her overbearing mom, and while others are making their way in the world (“Betty Smith’s mother says she’s a lawyer now”), she’s stuck in the same place.
But all that changes when Lou meets a mysterious woman (Poppy Roe) at the Barry Withnott Pathway to Success seminar. The woman gives Lou her card. “Come see me,” she tells Lou, “if you ever want to change your life, unlike all these bags of air.”
Curiosity peaked, Lou takes the woman up on her invitation. It turns out Val’s ambition is to become the “greatest life coach in the world.” Soon she’ll be embarking on a final trip before she launches this great project; all she’s looking for now is the perfect companion, someone who could “really blossom with the right coaching.”
Of course, that someone is Lou, and soon the two set out on a trip of self-discovery that will end with a pilgrimage to the great Chuck Knoah’s house.
Of course, things aren’t always what they seem.
As the two head out of town suspicious things begin to happen, a radio announcer reveals that a woman’s body has been found near where Val was staying. When Val returns from paying for gas, she has a mysterious drop of blood on her face. Just who is this new life coach, and what lessons does she have in store for Lou?
Leaning heavily into its black humor, SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE pokes fun at modern self-help culture while also delivering a delightful story with just enough depth. This is not a film that belabors its point, and that’s a good thing. While meaning and comedy can work together, writer/director Staten Cousins Roe’s lighter approach gives the film a jolly buoyancy that’s refreshing without ever feeling silly.
In fact, Roe’s skill with comedy is evident in every scene from broad physical comedy, like a fight to the death with kitchen tools, to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it situational humor, like a couple introducing each other (“This is Izzy.” “And this is Ralph.”) instead of themselves.
But what really makes this movie work is how well all the pieces work together. Roe has assembled an incredible team, and everyone, from the actors to the composer, is working together effortlessly. We’ve all seen the films where one person is out of sync with the overall vision, but SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE doesn’t falter once.
A shout out must be given to actors Katie Brayben and Poppy Roe who play Lou and Val, respectively. While both their characters and the scenarios they find themselves in are often over-the-top, these two women play their parts with a beautiful conviction that’s both comical and surprisingly touching. As a result, you believe their motivations (however absurd), and you can’t help but start to believe in them as they lead you down the primrose path of self-help destruction.
In the end, I don’t know if it’s really possible to always be happy in life, but with this film, you’ll at least have a couple happy hours. And isn’t that all we can really hope for? A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE is a wickedly fun ride for anyone fond of a laugh at (fictional) murder.
A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE will be released on iTunes and Digital HD January 13, 2020.