In this life there are few things worse than being misunderstood, to possess the feeling that those around you can’t see about you what you see in yourself. This schism between social reflection and personal identity has been the source of a great many tales, heroic and villainous, establishing that this feeling transcends a period or place, but is everywhere all at once. The true measure of an individual is what they do when a catalyst, cruel or kind, presents itself. Do they become a force for a good or one of selfish evil? Surprisingly, this is at the heart of director Nick Gillespie’s Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, a tale that’s as much a comedic drama as it is a scruples comedy tipped in horror. Especially in the age of always-on social media, an audience for all types at ones’ fingertips, the push to serve as one’s own avenging angel is never more than a notification away. What the script by Brook Driver, Matt White, and Gillespie seems to ask is: what would you be willing to do to make right a perceived wrong?
Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) dreams of stardom. Singing, dancing, acting, he can do it all. He just needs the chance to show-off what he’s got. With his mother, Julie (June Watson), in his corner, he’s ready to give it all he has in an upcoming regional competition that’ll put him in front of esteemed talent scout Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop). Except, the day of the competition, everything that could go wrong, does, sending Paul down a spiral of shame and doubt. Believing that he was robbed due to the cruelty of others, Paul sets off to deliver a taste of revenge most pure. With him live-streaming everything, will he be able to clear the names from his list before the cops capture him? More importantly, will he achieve the stardom he so desperately believes he’s owed?
With a summary like this, there’s a certain expectation that Paul Dood is going to turn into Joker (2019), Falling Down (1993), Shoot’em Up (2007), Spree (2020) or any number of other One Bad Day or Social Media Killer-type stories we’ve seen before. This is merely the enticement that gets you in the door. Who doesn’t want to see bad people get their comeuppance? Or see the birth of a villain? Titillating, isn’t it? It gets you salivating at the mouth, excited at the promise of delicious retribution. The truth is that Paul Dood is as much an admonishment of societies social proclivities as it is an exploration of what being kind can do. Oddly, Paul Dood has more in common with the Revenge of the Nerds (1984), minus the rape. Paul isn’t so much in possession of an overblown ego that lends itself to ultraviolence as he merely wants to make his mother proud. Complicated relationships aside, there’s a certain universality to this as a catalyst for anyone, real or imagined. If you finally got your shot to do the thing, the very dream you share with your parents, how would you react in the face of continued cruelty and rejection? Just because the script goes out of its way to define who’s a hero and who’s a villain in the story, two wrongs don’t make a right. This, however, is where Paul Dood separates itself, not just because of how the cast presents their characters or the way the script elevates a slightly predictable narrative with giggle-inducing execution, but because at its core, everything that interacts within the film is predicated by the rules of society.
For the most part, everyone understands that living within a society means there’s a certain expectation of how one acts or behaves. We have rules for driving, for living among neighbors, for how much alcohol can be imbibed and where. Mostly, there’s a general rule of civility. There’s nothing wrong with being polite, yet, more and more, who we are online is an exaggeration of who we are in public. We’re either a keyboard warrior online and timid in public or the kind, caring savior in public and a terror in private. As presented within the film, the villains are mostly people behaving badly, using their social position to manipulate the rules of civility to their purpose. Death is the ultimate punishment, but it’s not true justice without the opportunity to face the consequences and atone. In this way, Paul Dood doesn’t so much eviscerate these notions amid the mayhem, but it does ask us, the audience, to consider what it is we were hoping for when we press play on the film. Why do we want violence with no consequence? In a way, Gillespie is turning the camera on the audience, questioning where our own line in the sand is, who are we rooting for, and why.
Ginormous credit to Gillespie for taking a simple revenge premise and infusing it with such humanity, even if powered by grief. It’s a feeling that anyone can understand, offering a motivation that’s both easy to rationalize and support. Amid all the loss of life, what comes as the biggest surprise is how life-affirming Paul Dood becomes. Life, death; failure, triumph; love, loss — all anyone really wants is to be treated with some kindness. That the character Paul Dood reacts to the specific breakdown of civility with violence doesn’t shock, but his response to his own actions absolutely will. It certainly helps that the cast Gillespie pulled in are equal to the task of blending the drama and comedy so that the tone never veers too far in one direction or another. Especially Meeten, who so easily could’ve played Paul as socially unaware or daft, but opts to interpret him as aware of how others seem him and of what matters in his life. He’s not the stereotypical mama’s boy, sheltered and awkward. Rather, Meeten infuses an innocence that makes Paul seem like the best of us: kind, warm, and welcoming. This make his rage all the more palatable when he opts for bloody carnage.
No joke, in order to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I’ve jumped one landmine after another. The ways in which Gillespie takes the tired-and-true and creates something fresh is admirable. That to discuss the various ways he, his cast, and crew utilize while circumventing the rules we’ve agreed to for revenge tales would require an entirely different write-up that would undoubtedly ruin the purity of the experience. So instead, I encourage you to go into Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break with expectations at the door and have yourself a good time. When it’s all over, make sure to marinate in what you loved and what didn’t work for you. The commentary within the film may help elucidate why you feel as you do.
Currently streaming during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.