‘Life’ feels more like a pitch than an actual movie. The film has a strong idea and it’s clear how the filmmakers were able to talk people into financing it. And yet, the final project never amounts to much more than a concept and a doodle. Ultimately, it’s just another of those “Icons are people too!” ordeals like ‘My Week with Marilyn‘ or ‘Me and Orson Welles’.
These movies constantly shriek at audiences to notice that the celebrity star they think they know so well is just as flawed as the rest of us, but then never deliver a portrayal that scratches deeper than the surface. In the end, a movie like this is little more than an opportunity to see a contemporary actor do an impression of a famous person.
The film is about the famous Life magazine photo essay that Dennis Stock took of James Dean shortly before the release of ‘East of Eden’. You know it. Think of any photograph of James Dean that wasn’t on a movie set. Robert Pattinson stars as Stock, and plays him as a desperate photographer (and occasional well-meaning father) who’s sick and tired of shooting red carpets. He wants to be an artist and instantly knows that he’s found a new star and major talent when he meets James Dean. The young actor is the type of guy the public will love, but Stock can capture first. Dane DeHaan plays the mumbling, troubled genius exactly as you’d imagine. He likes Stock, but isn’t interested in needlessly pursuing fame. Stock chases Dean and starts snapping shots around his daily routines. The star then invites the photographer back to his home town for further bonding and the birth of two careers in black-and-white.
Given that director Anton Corbijn (‘Control’) started as a photographer following around troubled Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, it’s pretty clear why this project appealed to him. Clearly, he found a personal connection with the material. However, the final film has no particular resonance beyond showcasing the power of photography. Corbijn’s directorial style is coldly detached. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it makes him an awkward choice to helm a movie that is – at least in theory – about a warm bond between two lost souls. The personal connection never really clicks, so the movie feels more like a checklist of necessary scenes to link together all of Stock and Dean’s most famous photos. It’s pretty lifeless beyond that, even though it’s ironically supposed to be a movie about looking beneath surface imagery.
On the plus side, the stunt-cast performances are at least worth a look. Dane DaHaan might not exactly be a spitting image of Dean, but he gets all the mopey mumbles and poses right. Given that the character and Corbijn’s style prevent any bursts of emotions from coming into play, DeHaan can only really do an impression rather than a performance, but he at least does that well.
Fairing better is Pattinson, who has been smart about choosing his post-‘Twilight’ roles and is slowly transforming into a compelling actor. He smartly underplays while DeHaan goes full Dean. They make for a compelling on-screen team even when the movie can’t live up to their work. Ben Kingsley is also kind enough to kick in a delightfully grandiose studio boss performance, but the flick is such a two-hander that it doesn’t really register.
Corbijn certainly knows how to shoot a movie and compiles a collection of pretty pictures throughout the running time. ‘Life’ is visually impressive and fairly well acted, but ultimately does little beyond scratching the surface of the story. The film will leave viewers feeling chilly and malnourished. There’s just not much here despite the sense of self-importance that hangs over every frame. Maybe the story was never as good as the elevator pitch or maybe the script is just weak. It’s hard to say, but it’s even harder to appreciate the movie beyond those surface charms.