Life – Film Review by C.K. MacNamara
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Luke Davies
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan
Set against the backdrop of America’s seismic cultural shift from pre-war nostalgia to the rise of the anti-establishment rebel, Life attempts to cast a biographical light on the James Dean story, and the photographer, Dennis Scott, who documented him.Considering Director Corbijn’s own pre-directing success as a photographer and experience making films of a similar vein, one would think he would excel in the role of emphasising the humanity of the people behind the characters beyond the rose tinted perspective of Hollywood deceptively golden history.
At first this seems to be the case, and veneered in 50s chic, top tier cinematography and stellar performances the story follows Dean’s indecisiveness about the sudden onslaught of fame, as he bounces to and from the snow choked streets of New York and the sun speckled sleaze of L.A. and italicised farmstead of his youth. Dennis latches onto the broody rebel in the hopes of capturing an exclusive exposé before the competition, and in the process salvage or at least keep at bay his own glaring problems and poor life choices.
Sadly this complexity is only skin deep, and despite the assurances of the characters there is nothing likable or ‘special’ about Dean’s character who, played by DeHann, drawls monotonously in a syllable-a-minute slug crawl of pretentious warbling that makes him a mild nuisance at the 10 minute mark, and a sinkhole for what the film does get right by the time the credits roll around. The fact that the lynchpin of the film is the weakest character fatally undermines the more interesting characters such as Dennis, who occasionally wander into the spotlight only to suddenly deflect the audience’s attention back to the ‘moody new star’.
The friendship between the two never seems genuine, and more than once it seems the characters belong to entirely separate stories, stapled together only for the sake of the script. Iconic character of Hollywood’s golden era are tokenly introduced to fawn over ‘Jimmy’ then promptly dismissed, amounting to so much narrative fluff that only highlights the superficial portrayal of the character and lacklustre performance of DeHann.
Despite great performances and beautifully detailed setpieces, the bulk of the film is spent awaiting that one scene or moment that ties everything together, a moment that can never quite rise above the ever-present weakness of the focal character. What starts then as a strong portrait of the cultural icon never makes it out of the gate, and unravels slowly into an unrewarding slump that peters out without closure or substance, accompanied by on screen text proclaiming ‘then James died and everyone lived happily ever after.’