Ruining the Freudian allure of living fast and dying young by only really caring about the second part, Life is more successful as a reminder to prep your will than it is as a character study. This slice of biopic life finds actor James Dean as he stands on the precipice of stardom, and therefore, his untimely death. Director Anton Corbijn’s sleepy deconstruction of a Golden Age icon proves all too effective at exposing the duller details of Hollywood’s affair with Dean, before he became an industry legend and early martyr of American youth culture.
Patient pacing, the masks separating private and public appearance, the worth of an individual man: all interests of Life that also made Corbijn’s previous film, A Most Wanted Man, a thoughtful exercise in screw-tightening espionage. But the gulf of engagement one feels between modern terror politics and Silent Generation celebrity is wide as the Midwest plains Dean hailed from. On the road navel gazing isn’t a meritless pursuit (look to The End of the Tour for a recent one that gets it right), but the image produced of Dean by Life is stifling and narrow to the point of inaccessibility, like a lovely-looking slideshow of someone else’s Christmas vacation.
The film takes place during a few eventful weeks of the busiest chapter in Dean’s life. By early 1954, the 23-year-old-actor would be picked to headline Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, for which Dean received a Best Actor nomination; by ‘55, he’d be starring in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause; and by the fall of that same year, Dean would be killed in an automobile accident. Luke Davies’ script opens with Dean (Dane DeHaan) at the boarding gate for fame, his talent visible to those within the industry, but not fully known to the public before it was already too late.
It’s through the eyes of Robert Pattinson, playing photographer Dennis Stock, that we’re meant to measure DeHaan’s Dean. Published as just a filler spread about some “moody” new actor, the Life Magazine photo collection Stock produced while following Dean cross country – from New York City to his hometown of Marion, Indiana – became a monochrome diary in the aftermath of the rising star’s passing. Leading man handsome but sensitive of features and expression, the Dean captured in Life is as close as the American public would get to the heartthrob that, for longer than his time on Earth, embodied “cool.”
Life’s time and place are smartly chosen, the dead of winter giving downtown Toronto (doubling for New York) a washed out look that makes Stock’s work almost impossible to colorize. Specific scenes snap and crackle from within the film’s low-roaring dramatic hearth. Dean and Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) grooving to a dive bar jukebox brings the former’s disaffected sex appeal to light, while also comically cutting to Stock as he attempts to bed a girl clearly more interested in the guy on the dance floor. The contrast between the two young men – one desperate for success, the other unsure of whether he wants it – gives Davies’ plenty of room to probe the nature of artistic honesty.
By and large, though, Life just drifts along in first gear, examining a frosty partnership where neither half is terribly interesting. The performers aren’t really at fault; DeHaan, plump lipped with prickled eyelashes, certainly looks the part of Dean well enough. And the mumbled monotone of DeHaan’s delivery certainly sounds the part of Dean, or at least, the Dean who no one had time to know any better, but it turns pages-long dissections of Dean’s pretensions, justified or not, into white noise.
Pattinson’s fine under similar constraints, playing a character so constipated by his own inadequacy that he never betrays much of anything at all (a subplot involving Stock’s terrible choices as a father only grabs your attention thanks to some unexpected vomiting). The emotional tenor of Life is fittingly moody, but it registers with the low thrum of a distant foghorn, Dean’s impending death being respectfully, but also perhaps wastefully, kept off in the horizon. There’s more colour and, well, life in Stock’s editor (Joel Edgerton) giving him a pat “great job, kid,” acknowledgement near the end of the film than in much of the drama that precedes it.
Life does right by Dean the movie star by being pretty and detached, but Corbijn’s subject is too elusive to allow much of anything to come into focus. The film far too often resembles one of Stock’s photos, a strikingly composed and affected act that implies more than it can rightly confirm.
As a portrait of James Dean, Life only manages to capture his soft, stolid side.