I had the delight of seeing this movie last week. I admit, I picked it out out of pure curiosity. I had little to no idea what it was about, all I knew was that it had Blake Lively in it and she comes back to life on a mortician’s table. I had half a dozen reactions to those spare scraps of information alone. Blake Lively? I’d only seen her in Gossip Girl and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and I admit while I love the former, I can’t stand her in the latter.
But I couldn’t help but be intrigued. The names themselves are enough to catch your attention, but they’re not hard to believe as names, they simply hint towards a quirkiness that can’t help but be expanded by the the plot description.
Basically, Anabelle is a beauty contestant, vying for the illustrious title of Texas Rose, pushed towards it incessantly by her I-want-you-to-have-a-better-life mother (the almost-always brilliant Mary Steenberger) and possibly even more by her twelve-kinds-of-icky stepfather. The constant pressure pays off as Anabelle is indeed crowned Miss Texas Rose—only to die of heart failure moments after being crowned, as a complication of an eating disorder. She is then taken to the Moreau Funeral Home, reported as the best funeral home in the county, under the direction of Charlie Moreau.
In truth, Charlie hadn’t been embalming for years—the business was secretly kept up by his seventeen-year-old son, Elvis. Elvis is not your average seventeen-year-old, as could probably be guessed by the work he does, but his life has been more shaped by the suicide of his mother when he was a child, and his father’s resulting decline in competence. We learn later on in the film that Charlie (played magnificently by Joe Mantegna), who is a hunchback, has lost much of his mental capacity after being hit in the head by bottles thrown by town hooligans.
But back to the story. Anabelle ends up in Elvis’ all-too-capable hands, and he can’t help but recognize the beauty queen. Elvis has a habit of taking pictures of his “work,” the people he’s embalmed, but before he can so much as start on Anabelle, he’s captivated by her beauty. In a moment of weakness that’s much less creepy than it reads here, he kisses her, and as he does he accidentally hits the flash of his set-up camera, which shocks Anabelle out of a deep, coma-like state of cardiac arrest. Anabelle is then returned to her delighted parents—who don’t change their priorities for the girl, despite what she’s been through. The media circuit that is a result of Anabelle’s seeming ressurrection (and that her parents are eagerly feeding into) is too much for her, and after a nightmare implying that Anabelle’s death obviously didn’t affect her parents at all, she finds herself running away in the middle of the night, fleeing to the one place no one would expect her to go—back to the funeral home where she came back to life.
Mainly, Anabelle is looking for answers. She can’t remember—or understand the reason—behind her coming back to life. After Elvis discovers her on their property, he grudgingly lets her stick around for the night, but when she starts questioning Charlie—who the world of course believes was the one to witness her awakening—Elvis gets defensive and brusque with her. Despite this, Anabelle simply can’t go home, and so she decides to stay at the funeral home, to disappear for a while, as it’s one place no one would ever think to look for her.
The two obviously end up spending time together then, but Elvis is decided early on that because she’s popular and pretty, she must be like the other popular kids in town, like the ones who got their kicks by tormenting his father, for example. Anabelle is enchanted by the ever-sweet Charlie, though, and fairly irrepressibly cheerful and nice—until she gets ticked off by Elvis’ brooding negativity, and then she calls him out on it, which he can’t help but be impressed (and sort of amused) by.
Anabelle’s parents, meanwhile, have reported her as missing, and when a cop comes by the funeral home asking questions, Elvis agrees to drive her to a friend’s home a few cities away—but there is no friend, really, and the two end up simply roadtripping and enjoying themselves, throwing off all the burdens their parents have inadvertently (and sometimes not so inadvertently) lain on their shoulders, and growing closer as they do so, until something happens which has Anabelle running unhappily back to her parents, and eventually leads them both to the brink of drastic measures—only to be saved by each other in a lovely, serendipitous way.
Like I said, I really didn’t know what to expect going into this movie. I was considering that it might be something like a yuppie, updated, indie version of Harold and Maude, a lot of dark humor interspersed with a few extremely tender moments—and indeed, there’s a nod or two to that cult-classic in this film, which I can’t believe are unintentional. Where Harold and Maude is a sort of celebration of the Weird, however, Elvis & Anabelle is a tribute to the simple triumphs of the human spirit, even under the worst of conditions.
Any reservations I may have once had about Blake Lively’s ability as an actress are quite honestly swept away, and her opposite, Max Minghella is officially on my to-be-watched list. To be quite honest, though, the movie is worth watching if only for Joe Mantegna’s portrayal of Charlie. I’ve been pretty much raised on Mantegna’s work—starting with the charmingly-smarmy contractor from The Money Pit way back when. He’s always had a soft spot in my heart, and the sweet, childlike Charlie is played with such deft sincerity that I was literally in awe of his work.
This movie quite honestly broke my heart a good half-a-dozen times, but it’s not the dark, almost gothic tale I was expecting. It has an overwhelming sweetness to it, despite some particularly dark themes, and the story feels very natural, despite some fantastical elements to it. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can get your hands on it—and really, that’s a big if—don’t hesitate.
As a bonus, the music is fantastic.