By Ellery Nick @Ellery_Nick
Director Anton Corbijn takes us back to 1950s Los Angeles where a photographer is pursuing a debutante actor on the cusp of stardom. With a little luck that golden quiffed kid might just be his ticket away from snapping starlets on red carpets and back to good ol’New York where being a creative means something.
And so Dennis Stock tries to pin down the elusive James Dean. Both are young artists who share a similar reluctance for Hollywood’s pageantry, but nevertheless are driven by different forces. The photographer, played by Robert Pattinson, wants to work. Has a necessity to do so for himself and his son, but has a wavering conviction in his own artistic direction. Whereas James Dean, impersonated engagingly by Dane DeHaan, has the opposite problem. He feels success drawing him in like the vines of a hungry plant, typified by Ben Kingsley’s menacing studio executive Jack Warner; a perfectly balanced godfather of Tinseltown.
So LIFE is the tale of two outsiders who strike up an unlikely companionship? Perhaps. Why the media-shirking Dean would make himself available to a fledgling photographer is left unexpanded. At first there did seem to be a little flirtation and a lead towards rumours surrounding Dean’s sexuality, but instead the film opted for a different dynamic – that of a lean artist trying to get something from a subject who is more interested in finding a new buddy to play with. Everyone else would much rather he start playing the game instead.
This all muddles along fairly successfully, and there are elements of their struggle that are mirrored in the cast’s personal lives. Since seducing the planet with his chalky diamond skin, Robert Pattinson has been the subject of intense media interest. In interviews he appears awkward and eager to distance himself from the role that gave him his celebrity and along with Maps to the Stars, seems to be actively seeking parts that will help undermine it. His portrayal of Dennis Stock is that of a frustrated cynic, a skulking New York outsider, unable to fully integrate in a land of white teeth and palm trees. He’s awkward in the company of others, uncharming, but hungry to gain success and respect. Dean’s reluctance to be a part of Stock’s project was also echoed by DeHaan’s involvement. He took some time to accept what he described as a challenging role. Thankfully he did as his performance is not only an impression, but also instilled with the breathing personality of a languid oddball, disgusted by the low ambitions of an industry that could be an art form. Sadly the same can’t always be said elsewhere.
As with most biopics, LIFE is being pulled in two directions – between simulation and immersion in its own story. On the one hand there is a series of masterful impressions, each to be considered for authenticity – that of Dean, of the 1950s, of LA and New York, but there is also a story trying to unfold and in some ways hampered by the fact that it’s true. In this case the drama is of a hungry artist pleading with his subject to let him get to work, which is, it should be said, fairly light stuff. What’s more, the lack of depth is further enhanced by the production being overworked. Stock’s iconic photos create a natural storyboard for Corbijn’s film and every scene leads to a camera snap. Like an award for ending a computer game level, the frame aligns around the action and click. An icon reads his comic. Click. Icon gets a new haircut. All the while floorboards creek, ties are askew, cigarettes dangle unaided from straight-talking lips like a Raymond Chandler play.
LIFE is undeniably good, the performances are solid and at times energised with real charisma. DeHaan in particular gives a captivating performance as a non-conformist coaster who’s unwilling to fully reveal himself. It was particularly intriguing to follow the two artists and their disconnected time together – the frustrated need to get something from the other that the other cannot quite give. Unfortunately, this would also summarise my feelings on the film as a whole.
Life is out in cinemas September 25th.