Berlinale 2015: Anton Corbijn's 'Life' is a Lifeless Waste of Talent
by Alex Billington
February 10, 2015
Anton Corbijn is a remarkable photographer. But I'm not so sure he's that great of a filmmaker, especially after his most recent film. I'm not usually one to bash films, but Corbijn's latest work – titled Life – is such an exceptional let down I can't help but express my disdain. The film feels so lifeless, and is devoid of any impressive features at all, which is odd considering it's a story about James Dean starring two very talented actors. But why does it suck so much? It's bland and boring, a misfire on all counts, from the story to the casting to the photography itself. I had hoped I'd feel some–any–emotion, but never did. Instead, during my Berlinale screening, the only nagging feeling I had was that I wanted it to end right away so I could bolt.
Corbijn's Life, from a script by Luke Davies, tells the story of the relationship between actor James Dean and young photographer Dennis Stock, who took some of the most iconic photos of Dean for Life magazine in the 1950s. Dane DeHaan plays Dean, and Robert Pattinson plays Stock, with Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Kelly McCreary, Michael Therriault and Alessandra Mastronardi in the mix as well. Not a single one of them is impressive, which is unfortunate because I know most of them are actually very capable actors. The plot follows Stock as he follows Dean around the country, the two establishing a tepid friendship right as Dean is about to become a superstar with both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.
Among the many problems with the film, it never actually looks good, which doesn't make sense considering Corbijn's prowess as a photographer. His cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen does an acceptable job, but there's no life, no energy, no feeling to any shot. Not one. Yea sure there's a lot of cigarette smoke drifting around every frame (because everyone smoked in the 50s and smoke adds a certain patina). But there's also a lot of smoke in Inherent Vice and that film looks much better. The story never really amounts to anything, and instead we're treated to depressing conversations and sad scenes of "am I ever going to get out of this life?" Even the iconic shots Stock takes have terribly dull lead ups, with no real payoff in the end.
This is tough to discuss, but I can't help but claim that DeHaan might've been completely miscast. He's not terrible, but he's also not James Dean. And that's one of the other big problems with the film. Anyone who is anyone knows James Dean because of the films that made him famous, and he's an incomparable presence. No one can replicate that, no matter how hard they try, and they definitely try in this film. But it doesn't work. At all. It's a waste of talent because I know how good Pattinson and DeHaan are, but I'm not sure if I should be blaming Corbijn for the mediocre performances or blaming the casting director for choosing them to begin with. Probably both. It's just sad to see, because it's an interesting story that feels so lifeless here.
If the film's goal was to profile the sordid relationship between an awkward talent like James Dean and a just-as-awkward journalist, it barely achieves its aim. On the other hand, James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour (which just premiered at Sundance 2015) is a much, much better profile of that kind of relationship, focusing on awkward novelist David Foster Wallace and the time he was followed and interviewed by young journalist David Lipsky. Corbijn's Life doesn't add anything to any discussion, instead it wastes time and talent on a good story that maybe should've stayed as a story in books and magazines, not on the big screen.
Alex's Berlinale 2015 Rating: 4 out of 10
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