Life (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality/nudity and language
Running Time: 151 min.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Alessandra Mastronardi
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Luke Davies
Review published December 6, 2015
They often quip, "Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse," and perhaps no other Hollywood icon exemplifies the notion more so than James Dean, whose career trajectory was just on the verge of soaring to the stratosphere when his life ended in 1955, at the age of 24, in an automobile accident. However, what if the fast life wasn't what James Dean had been about, contrary to the image we all have of him from his films and public appearances? What if, underneath the sex symbol mystique, he had really been just a boy-next-door from a small town in Indiana, who despised the glitz, the glamor, and the notoriety of Hollywood, yearning, more than anything, just to be with his family and friends he grew up with?
The film is mostly set in 1954, with James Dean's Oscar-nominated turn in East of Eden awaiting release and his star-making performance in Rebel Without a Cause still awaiting whether he'd be cast in the role. Dennis Stock (Pattinson, The Rover), a film-set and red-carpet photographer allowed by Life Magazine to capture some still about the mostly unknown, up-and-coming young actor, travels with Dean (DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) in and around New York City (Toronto substitutes), and later to Dean's hometown of Marion, Indiana, shooting several candid shots of the actor, who, ironically, abhorred posing for the camera much. The images would become iconic, particularly among the youth of the 1950s, who saw Dean as an icon of their growing need to not conform to tradition, though the story behind the photos reveals another irony, which is that this "coolest of cool" rebel in Hollywood was merely expressing very traditional American values, resisting the urge to embrace the fame, fortune and paparazzi that comes with being a movie star.
Life's reviews will suffer a bit from critics because of its story similarities to another 2015 release, The End of the Tour, which features a writer from Rolling Stone magazine tasked with an expose on Midwestern author David Foster Wallace, who ends up changing the writer's life in the short amount of time he's exposed to observing his insular world while in his rural Illinois home. The only key difference here is that one is about words and the other is about pictures, and The End of the Tour is also a better film in nearly every respect overall, even if Life isn't necessarily a bad one. It's just not as interesting to see the interactions between subject and photographer, especially since it's not evident just why Dean bends over backwards to make friends with Stock, even though the latter seems to not have very many magnetic traits one would readily gravitate toward.
This isn't James Dean character study so much as one of contrasts, especially in how big-city attitudes are often quite devoid of close-knit family values, and the troubles that can cause in marriage and parenting. Stock is shown as wanting to have artistic clout in his own industry, and uses Dean in order to catapult him toward that, even though there is an irony that he's doing so from a man who does not want to be photographed, and questions whether or not he even appreciates his fame. With every sound of a camera shutter, James Dean shudders. It's an interesting take from director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, The American), himself once a photographer for several famous musicians before making the transition to moving film, so perhaps he knows the difficulty or trying to wrangle copy-worthy pictures of artists who'd rather just do their thing than try to play the publicity game when they're "off the clock."
Obviously, fans of James Dean will gravitate toward Life the most, as it promises to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the actor that isn't well known, primarily because Dean died before he would become famous enough to examine every aspect of his biography. For a film centered around the photographs taken of James Dean that made him a cultural icon, if there's one thing the film is lacking, it's the reason why those pictures resonated with the public at large in the mid-1950s and beyond. We see the context for each snapshot, and can appreciate their aesthetically appealing qualities, but in absentia, what wave those photographs rode that tapped into the youth culture of the times is perhaps the extra layer the movie needs in order to go from a mildly interesting peek into celebrity culture of its era, to being something we can take away from the movie other than to appreciate the relationships we have with those around us for as long as we're around. In Life Magazine, there are many pictures that became big, but Life, the movie, seems to be missing the big picture.
©2000 Vince Leo