Life (111 mins)
Director: Anton Corbijn
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
In 1955 Los Angeles, photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is trying to make a name for himself, working mostly on movie sets and at premieres when he’s introduced to a young actor named Jimmy Dean (Dane DeHaan).
This initially intriguing but largely dull drama takes place just before Dean hits the big time. He’s already shot East of Eden though it hasn’t been released yet, while Warner Bros are in the process of deciding whether to offer him the lead in Rebel Without a Cause.
A few months later he’d be dead, his persona immortalised forever by just three movies. But in the meantime he’s more or less unknown and Stock thinks he can help them both out. He sees the potential star in James Dean and, realising he won’t be unknown for long, wants the big photo-shoot break that will get an assignment with Life magazine.
Early moments look like we might be getting a real insight into a legendary figure. Dean wants to be a great actor, and comes across as cool upfront but insecure in private, and unsure how to play the showbiz game. The movie is correct to focus on a specific period of his life rather than go the full biopic route, but there needs to be more going on than this, and it becomes apparent after a while that this is a one scene film, with that scene played out over and over.
DeHaan doesn’t look especially like Dean, particularly once the film cuts to Stock’s actual photos of him, but he captures his laconic, mumbling manner in reasonably convincing style. Pattinson is unfortunately lumbered with trying to dredge up audience interest in a guy where there may not be any to be found. With Dean you can at least see the hook.
A lot of scenes pass without us getting any further forward, or offer any clear notion of why we’re watching it. And the longer it goes on, the less interesting it becomes. It does that thing you get in Hollywood biopics as characters offer awkward introductions to real people, but scores a few points in displaying the power of movie moguls back then. Ben Kingsley as Jack Warner wanting to control every aspect of Dean’s life, and the inanity of the publicity machine is revealed.
But while the film manages to avoid the clumsy early need of having to spoon-feed us who Dean is, it later negates that by filling in his details with on-screen text, the laziest device available to movie biographers.