Editor’s Notes: Life opens in limited theatrical release December 4th.
As a star, a good part of James Dean’s appeal was his detachment. Of course, there was the hunk, but Dean was a trained actor (he practiced at Lee Strasberg’s coveted Actors Studio in Manhattan), who knew how to embody the nuances of character, particularly a quality of restlessness. Often playing a “disaffected youth”, Dean had a natural ability for detached irony and contained emotion, which occasionally leaked out through controlled, well-calibrated outbursts (Rebel without a Cause’s classic “you’re tearing me apart!” tantrum is Dean at his most shrill, but it still works when you watch it in the moment).
Unfortunately, in the new film Life, director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Luke Davies take James Dean’s detached quality at face-value. . .
Mostly, Dean’s characters were softies, who played their cards close to their chest. Their detachment was a defence mechanism against a society that had rejected them. Unfortunately, in the new film Life, director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Luke Davies take James Dean’s detached quality at face-value. They are not interested in uprooting the angst that’s burrowed underneath that star’s thin veneer. Instead, the filmmakers stick to a stubborn solemnity of tone that drags down the film’s pace (its 111 minutes feel strangely interminable).
Taking place in the 1950s, Life limply presents the relationship between Dean and photographer Dennis Stock (the perfect surname for a photographer, no?) in anticipation of East of Eden’s premiere, the Elia Kazan adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel that marked Dean’s break out in Hollywood. Averse to the public attention, Dean (played by the boyish Dane DeHaan) is put under pressure by studio mogul Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley in his token moustachioed role) to smile for the camera and wax poetic about Kazan’s “genius”.
A notorious outcast and rebel, Dean resists Warner’s directive and flees to New York City, the city where his heart clearly resides. It is there he meets Stock (played by Robert Pattinson), who works for Magnum Photos Agency under John Morris (Joel Edgerton, with little to do other than to tell Stock he’s “busy”). Stock insists that there is a remarkable quality about Dean that’s yet to be uncovered by the press and world at-large; reluctantly, Morris commissions the photographer to shoot the rising star in a variety of artful, yet highly naturalistic poses for Life magazine.
Corbijn, a brilliant stylist, is strangely off-base in his direction here. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is warm, vivid, and services the era, but there is no real dialogue scene that uses its environment to inform the inner tension of the story.
What’s theoretically interesting about Davies’s script is it tries to raise the question of which of the two characters get the most value out of the photo assignment. “I want to help you,” Dean halfheartedly assures Stock, who replies with- “no, I’m helping you.” Stock is clearly set up as a struggling journalist, who chose to live too early by getting married and divorcing while his only son was still in its mother’s womb. On the other hand, Dean lived “too fast” as The Eagles song goes, sexing his way through life and making rash marriage proposals to fleeting girlfriends (one played by Alessandra Mastronardi).
Both Dean and Stock have reckless tendencies that get them into trouble. Misfits, they act aloof in the face of authority and bourgeois responsibility. Where DeHaan plays up Dean’s wry detachment, Pattinson simply comes off depressed, as if he’s sleepwalking through his dialogue. But, at least we sense a character there- an attempt by Pattinson at etching a personality, however dull. His performance, though (no thanks to the script), is too passive, only upheld by an one-noted sullenness. DeHaan believably adapts Dean’s drawl, but lacks the broad, muscular physique that made the real Dean a credible sex symbol for both men and women.
More importantly, DeHaan and Pattinson play their respective characters on a similar note. They both come off as too disinterested, which is not categorically bad, it is just Corbijn and Davies do not explore the complexities of their relationship. There is no real character development to open our eyes, invite observation, and fully engage our interest. Even when Stock joins Dean on a trip home to Indiana, the film fails to gather momentum. There is a moment where Stock eavesdrops on Dean disparaging him to a family member, but the embitterment Pattinson tries to convey in that scene barely transfers over to the subsequent confrontation. There is no staying power to any of the character revelations.
Corbijn, a brilliant stylist, is strangely off-base in his direction here. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is warm, vivid, and services the era, but there is no real dialogue scene that uses its environment to inform the inner tension of the story. From Control to A Most Wanted Man, that has been Corbijn’s speciality; but in Life, his haphazard use of handheld along with basic camera setups render this the director’s most pedestrian effort to date.
You don’t want to be cute by calling Life “lifeless”, but it is hard to come up with a better word that describes the film’s slack narrative. The film is not awful by any stretch of the imagination (it looks good and has moments of interest), but as a portrait of two creative personalities, it falls tragically short.
Instead, check out this year’s The End of the Tour, a similar story about the relationship between a journalist (Rolling Stone’s David Lipsky) and reclusive artist (Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace). That movie examined the complex blend of envy and admiration those two had for each other, while also tapping into the underlying tension that no matter how friendly those two became, Foster was still an “assignment” to Lipsky.
Life, for the majority of its runtime, is an assignment to watch.
Despite its intriguing subject matter, Life is a chore to watch. It takes two personalities, similar in temperament, but does little with them. The film has superb period details, but that is ultimately window dressing to a story without compelling form and content.