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It sounds like the perfect alchemical formula: One ambitious man struggling to break beyond the commercial constraints of his field and prove himself an artist sees an opportunity in a reluctant emerging star, unprepared for the demands of his exploding fame. The elements are fortified when that encounter is pegged to a transitional moment in Eisenhower-era America, as smooth matinee idols were making way for a rougher-edged, more rebellious breed of celebrity. But when a credible connection never sparks in that focal relationship, the whole story feels counterfeit.
That’s the simplified version of why Life doesn’t deliver on its considerable promise. The movie chronicles the back-story behind the 1955 photo spread that brought moody young heartthrob James Dean to the attention of the American public, just seven months before his tragic death at age 24. Dane DeHaan as Dean and Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock, the Magnum Photos freelancer whose professional horizons opened when he spotted the actor’s raw charisma, too often seem to be in different films, stranded by a script and direction that fail to make a convincing case for the central characters’ symbiosis.
What makes this even more of a letdown is that it seemed an ideal fit for director Anton Corbijn. His first and best film, Control, about Ian Curtis, the self-destructing frontman of late-’70s English post-punk band Joy Division, was far more successful at piercing the surface of a mythologized cult figure to show the fragile man underneath.
What’s more, Corbijn made his name as a photographer before branching into filmmaking, shooting portraits of some of the biggest names in rock, primarily for influential British music mag NME. When late in this movie, after finally managing to overcome Dean’s resistance and capture his elusive subject, Stock declares his intention to start photographing jazz musicians, it’s logical to assume Corbijn feels a kinship with his protagonist. But there’s no especially insightful appreciation in evidence for the art of photography as the key to unlocking guarded personalities.
That’s not to say that Life doesn’t look sharp. Anastasio Masaro‘s production design and Gersha Phillips‘ costumes vividly evoke the mid-century style of the three distinct principal settings — Hollywood, New York and the farming town of Fairmount, Indiana, where Dean spent part of his childhood. And cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) energizes the widescreen canvas with dynamic framing and high-contrast, saturated colors.
But the people that move through these worlds often register as inauthentic. That problem starts with DeHaan’s take on Dean, which seems more studied than inhabited, from the hunched shoulders and drowsy eyes to the sleepy-cool mumble. The performance becomes more effective as he gradually exposes a core of wounded vulnerability. But from Dean’s first appearance, the characterization struggles to avoid the trap of impersonation.
This is one of those true-Hollywood dramas that ushers out an endless parade of famous names in cheesy imitations, many of them bearing only a glancing resemblance to the real thing. They include Nicholas Ray, Natalie Wood, Raymond Massey, Elia Kazan, Julie Harris, Lee Strasberg and Eartha Kitt. The most amusingly cartoonish of these ersatz portrayals has Ben Kingsley chewing it up as a bullying Jack Warner, accustomed to having unconditional ownership of his stars.
The script is by Luke Davies, whose chief previous credit is adapting his novel Candy into the 2006 Heath Ledger film. He begins the story when Dean is under consideration for the lead in Rebel Without a Cause. Stock meets the brooding loner at a party thrown by director Ray at the Chateau Marmont; he lands an invitation to an advance screening of Dean’s first major film, East of Eden, which Warners is preparing to release.
While James is in a relationship with Italian starlet Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi), whose fame at that time still far eclipsed his, he has few real friends in L.A., which makes him drawn to Dennis. An early scene has a faint homoerotic frisson as James gives him an appraising look and says, “You wanna go for a ride on my ‘sickle’?” But that’s either unintended or under-explored.
Despite James still being a relatively unknown commodity, Dennis manages to persuade his Magnum picture editor John Morris (Joel Edgerton, in a nothing role) to pitch a next-big-thing spread on the actor to LIFE to coincide with the East of Eden premiere. But James gets cagey about participation as he runs afoul of the studio publicity machine and Warner uses threats to try to rein him in.
Meanwhile, Dennis is under pressure from his ex-wife (Stella Schnabel) to come back to New York and be a father to their seven-year-old son (Jack Fulton). He has seized on the Dean assignment as his first real shot at serious work, and seems determined that this undisciplined, awkward young actor can be positioned as the symbol of an exciting new movement.
Composer Owen Pallett channels that spirit of cultural ferment in a score of beatnik-flavored jazz, with lots of lazy drums and smoky horns, a musical device used to similar effect in another DeHaan film set a decade earlier, Kill Your Darlings.
While Pattinson has endured a lot of gratuitous bashing post-Twilight, he gives arguably the most fully rounded performance here, even if the character is inconsistently drawn. The photographer’s challenges seem as much due to his own insecurities as to the subject’s flakiness. But the conflict concerning whether James will or won’t deliver for Dennis’ camera never packs much urgency.
Nor does the relationship between them grow in any satisfying way. For much of the film they seem to move on parallel rather than interlocking tracks, and when James opens up during the train trip to Indiana about the painful loss of his mother as a child, it registers as a monologue, not a genuine response to a deepening friendship. DeHaan is solid in this scene and later, when James lets down his defenses and reveals his solitude. And yet the film mostly grasps for unearned emotions.
The photos, when they are finally recreated, are anticlimactic. There’s a mild thrill of pop-cultural significance in watching while a discouraged Stock suddenly realizes something magical is happening as Dean strolls through Times Square smoking a cigarette, with his hands thrust in his overcoat pockets and his collar turned up against the rain in what would become one of the defining images of the actor.
Others, like the classic barbershop portrait, occur without any real sense of momentousness. And the friction that surfaces between the two men during their trip to Indiana is too thin to generate much poignancy when the farm shots are being taken. One absolute gem that’s represented only in the end credits is the famous picture of Dean resting a hand on a massive hog, leaving Kingsley unchallenged as this dramatically wan movie’s prize ham.
Production companies: See-Saw Films, First Generation Films, Barry Films
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi, Stella Schnabel, Ben Kingsley
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Luke Davies
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Christina Piovesan, Benito Mueller, Wolfgang Mueller
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Mark Slone, Michel Merkt, Mark Roberts, Sheldon Rabinowitz, Ross Jacobson
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Anastasia Masaro
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips
Music: Owen Pallett
Editor: Nick Fenton
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, John Buchan, Jason Knight
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment
No rating, 110 minutes.
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