Beautiful Boy is a one-note, prosaic, on-the-nose look at drug addiction that’s set up as a showcase for two fine actors. Based on complementary memoirs by a father and son played respectively by Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet, Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s first American film is predictably straightforward and loaded with moments that trigger music cues for a vast array of tunes meant to relate to, or create, the mood of the moment when he hasn’t been able to.
This Amazon theatrical feature outing has its selling points, particularly as Chalamet’s first major role since his career-making work in Call Me by Your Name, but the emotional roller-coaster ride is only observed, never felt.
Actors love movies involving addiction because they provide excellent opportunities to go deep and intense, and the list of excellent ones over the years is long. Just for starters: The Lost Weekend, The Man With the Golden Arm, Days of Wine and Roses, The Panic in Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Sid and Nancy, Trainspotting, The Basketball Diaries. There are many more.
But Beautiful Boy does not belong on that list. Van Groeningen’s Academy Award-nominated 2012 film The Broken Circle Breakdown effectively conveyed the emotions of a couple in extremis over the fatal illness of a child, and the new pic certainly features many moments of parental distress over what their 18-year-old son is going through with his inexplicable penchant for crystal meth.
It’s a very Northern California film, with celebrated author David Sheff (Carell) living with his son Nic (Chalamet), second wife Karen Barbour (Maura Tierney) and their two kids in a Marin County paradise. Every phone conversation he has with his first wife, Vicki (Amy Ryan), escalates to an acrimonious level within less than a minute. We get the message about what’s in store when, in the early-going, David pulls a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned off the shelf.
Nic is, indeed, a beautiful kid, and bright and polite to boot. But when he tries crystal methamphetamine, he likes it. Way too much. Instead of going to college (he gets into every place he applied), he spends 26 weeks in a detox program, moves to a halfway house, then disappears. “Relapse is part of the recovery,” David is informed.
Thus is set the agenda, format and sole subject of the film; there may not be a conversation during its entire two hours that does not directly engage the matter at hand, which is tedious and not like real life even when it is dominated by one overbearing issue. For the rest of the way, the dramatic pendulum swings between periods of focus and sobriety (Nic does end up at college at a certain point) and life on the lowdown. Nic gets involved with a girl, Lauren (Kaitlyn Dever), who might wish, in the end, that she hadn’t, and Dad, endeavoring to handle his son’s vast swings in as informed and patient a manner humanly possibly, eventually gets taken to the brink one time too many.
The film is most interesting when it simply provides the opportunity to watch Chalamet. In his clean interludes, Nic is a lovely kid in every way; you’d never suspect there was a demon hiding inside him that would periodically take control of the slim body housing it. But then, of course, actors love the opportunities to go deep into madness and obsession. Chalamet is no exception but, in truth, he’s more exasperating and not as interesting in hooked mode as he is as a promising bright young thing. This guy should stay clean.
Getting together again on the seedy side of San Francisco after a separation, Nic and Lauren go to the edge and beyond; Nic can hardly find a clear spot on his arm to stick a needle into, and Lauren hovers on the brink. For his part, when he finds out what’s gone down, David for the first time withdraws, as if that’s part of the treatment, too. “I don’t think you can save people,” he bitterly proclaims.
It would be interesting to know what percentage of Beautiful Boy is swathed in popular music accompaniment; whatever it is, it’s a lot, with some of it seeming like time wasting for the sake of mood and a few achieving unusual poignant effects, notably an unexpectedly gorgeous Perry Como version of “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof.
As enacted here by unquestionably fine actors, this story does not emerge as compelling or convincing, and the film is aggravatingly narrow-minded in its interests. However, if one stays with it all the way to the end, it is absolutely worth sitting still for the end credits, over which is played a monologue by Nic, which is the best thing in the picture.
Production company: Plan B
Cast: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenwriters: Felix van Groeningen, Luke Davies, based on the books Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Executive producers: Nan Morales, Sarah Esberg
Director of photography: Ruben Impens
Production designer: Ethan Tobman
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editor: Nico Leunen
Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)