“You’re doing something else. It’s not Hollywood.”
Life recounts the unearthly existence of James Dean the actor and James Dean the Indiana farm boy as a tale of two men living together as one. “I just want to do good acting,” he says with a cigarette dangling between his lips. Dean only starred in three major films before his highspeed lifestyle caught up to him at 24, and as you watch his work, it seems impossible, even illogical, to imagine him as anything but the heart-throb that he was and the cultural icon that he continues to be. Trying to tell that story in two hours is an unenviable task. The movie has admirable aspirations although the execution is that of a dilettante. Life shows knowledge of its subject and interest in exploring; there just isn’t enough commitment.
We start at the premier of Dean’s (Dane DeHaan) first leading role in East of Eden. At this point he’s yet to be a star, but Dean’s mannerisms and unfettered ambivalence to the world around him draws the interest of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson). He wants to profile the actor for Life magazine, hence the title, and the film covers the short-lived relationship that they actually shared. You’d think inspirations from their past would bring some sort of authenticity or vivacity to the picture, but Anton Corbijn’s movie falls flat because of a lack of focus. Is this about Dennis’ journalistic intents, Dean’s disillusion, or how both parties function together in a friendship? That question goes unanswered.
Pattinson doesn’t get to do that much as Stock, a man as routine as the label of his last name. And DeHaan seems to struggle harnessing the awkwardness of the actor. In Dean’s films and in interviews, the Rebel Without a Cause star lived life with dissidence and abandon. Those qualities in that time-specific era were hard to come by, and in large part, the reason Dean’s imprint on cinema does not fade away. Some performers are unique in their own ways that cannot be copied. Like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman. They’re just different and can’t be copied or imitated. We’re always aware that we aren’t actually watching Dean, because who could play Dean besides Dean himself.
If you saw The End of the Tour earlier this year (which I couldn’t recommend more), then you can easily compare that film about David Foster Wallace to that of Life. The former is the more sensitive of the two, and properly understands that it cannot make a movie about the genius author. There’s nobody like him. Same goes for Dean. But what Corbijn gets wrong and Tour avoids is trying so desperately to tell a story about an actor instead of letting an actor tell the story. There’s a big difference between the two. Life is animated, but without the moody mystique or the neatly tucked away passion of its tragic hero. Interpreting a series of imagines can be difficult when there are no captions.
“Where is the soul of your subject?”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5