The cult of James Dean continues over sixty years on, although if his real life persona was anything like the performance given by Dane DeHaan in ‘Life’, it would be hard to fathom why, says Peter Dunne.
Dane DeHaan plays Dean just on the cusp of stardom, but even with East Of Eden nearing release and Warner Pictures grooming him to become the next big thing, he holds firm to his rebel streak. His magnetic cool tugs the attention of Dean Stock (Robert Pattinson), a photographer failing to make his mark at Life magazine. Stock recognizes an icon in the making and decides to make Dean the subject of a photo story.
Stock tags along with Dean’s walks on the hip side in 50’s New York and on a return to the modest Indiana farm Dean grew up on. The growing connection between the two men, veering from friendship to business partnership, is further muddied by Stock’s stubborn determination to capture a perfect image, an obsession which has already estranged him from his wife and child.
Questions arise from the outset if this is too thin a framework on which to build a good film and the few strong points do little to answer them positively. There is a thrill of familiarity when we see the recreation of that legendary photo of James Dean – cigarette dangling from his lip, collar turned up against the snow of Times Square, which did so much so cement his movie star status. More on performances later, but Ben Kingsley makes a brief, snappy, appearance as Jack Warner, a bubbling threat of violence hinting at how he built his empire. The closing credits reveal the rest of the photo series we have witnessed Stock clicking away at, their undeniable potency illustrating the draw the story had for director Anton Corbijn, a famed photographer himself.
Unfortunately, like snapshots, those brief highlights capture attention for only a moment and we are left with the rest of the, near two-hour, running time to slog through. It’s a shame to say, but the film is boring. It’s not that it moves at a glacial pace, it’s that nothing really happens. Dean and Stock plod from one location to the next, their conversations imparting nothing of interest. The famous names they encounter, such as Eartha Kitt, Elia Kazan, Natalie Wood, fail to make any impact whatsoever.
It’s a road trip leading to a dead end for Corbijn. Having already proved his mettle in his crossover from photography and music videos (U2, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, etc.) with a corker of a biopic in ‘Control’, based on Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s chilly swan song, ‘A Most Wanted Man’, it’s ironic that one of the most enigmatic and alluring of movie stars would bring him to earth with a thump.
Although Pattinson gives a rather bland performance as Stock, he has a few flashes to suggest maybe he could have brought something to the role of Dean if lead roles had been swapped. DeHaan certainly doesn’t. Adopting a speaking tone that sounds like he’s about to yawn at the end of every sentence, he portrays Dean as someone who’d be more at home clad in a dressing gown, shuffling around a living room with the curtains pulled in the middle of the day. His failure to project any star quality makes it all the more absurd to see these people fawning over the next big thing instead of covering him with a blanket and letting him nap on the couch. All of which suggests that the reason why biopics are made about icons, such as Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley are the same reasons they usually never work – their legendary allure, impossible to recreate.
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