James Dean’s role as a cultural icon is one that far exceeds his actual artistic output of just three feature films. In the film Life, director Anton Corbijn decides to examine the way in which some of the imagery most associated with Dean has been captured. How? By adapting the story of Dean’s relationship with Life magazine photographer, Dennis Stock.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that Corbijn never manages to accomplish anything beyond recreating imagery that is already familiar to most, with more than a passing familiarity to Dean. Rather than trying to capture the sense of energy and excitement that propelled Dean to the front of the cultural conversation in the 1950s, what Corbijn has created is a ponderous, tepid recounting of what is essentially a really long photo shoot.
Robert Pattinson, who plays Stock, the film’s protagonist, does his best with what he is given by playing a flustered and often pitiful man who is convinced that getting in early with a photo essay on Dean will lift him out of the mire of film set photography and red carpet events. Corbijn and Pattinson actually make Stock a somewhat nuanced, frequently unsympathetic character, who neglects his responsibility to his family in order to pursue what he sees as his artistic purpose. This is far from groundbreaking, but it does add some dimension to what could easily have been a blank audience cipher.
Yet Corbijn’s decision to incorporate a sub-plot involving Stock’s family also serves to slow the film’s already glacial pace, and further leads to an especially eye-rolling resolution in the film’s third act, wherein Corbijn appears to confuse a contrived narrative resolution with character development. This segment does, however, provide us with a scene where Pattinson vomits on a child, which is by far the most entertaining moment in the almost two-hour-long film.
Despite bearing no obvious physical resemblance to the man himself, DeHaan is an interesting choice for James Dean. DeHaan certainly possesses some of the same soulful vulnerability that made Dean a star; however, his performance here amounts to little more than a competent impersonation. DeHaan mumbles, smokes and wears the clothes, but he only impresses in the rare scenes within which he is permitted to explore some of the more complex elements of Dean’s persona, such as the dichotomy between Dean’s rebellious public image and his almost childlike innocence and love for his family, whose Indiana farm serves as a setting for much of the film.
Additionally, Corbijn also seems to be indecisive with exactly how he wishes to present Dean. At times, he appears to be crafting his version of Dean in the same mould as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors by painting Dean as a mythic figure who transcended the mediocrity of our ordinary world through artistry. At other times, he might be trying to emphasise Dean as a deeply flawed, human figure by showing him passed out drunk or getting petulant about the news that his lover is engaged. Though this is arguably an attempt at capturing the multi-faceted nature of Dean, it comes across more as inconsistency than complexity.
Although choosing to only adapt a segment of Dean’s short life allows Corbijn to sidestep some of the normal groan-inducing elements of biopics, such as age-enhancing makeup and jarring shifts in time, Corbijn still appears to be unable to resist tired biopic tropes such as cameos from actors playing the subject’s contemporaries. These appearances might have been more enjoyable if they could have presented to the audience more than just a sense of self-congratulatory satisfaction in recognising Natalie Wood or Eartha Kitt. But instead, all that these appearances do is reinforce the sense that Corbijn has fallen in love with the fussy period-detailing of this 50s set story and has neglected to pay close attention to the more important elements, such as giving the audience a reason to invest in a story whose ending we already know.
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