Reviewed by Rory Lynam
Life, as it is lived by ordinary people, is not full of heroic battles and thematically rich tragedy. Our lives are not simple narratives. Life is sadly more commonly than not a frustrating experience, which can crudely be defined as passages of uneventful boredom countered by positive moments that are all too brief. What is true of life is also true of Life, Anton Corbijn’s disappointedly underwhelming new film on the relationship between photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), and the legendary James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Dramatically inert and lifeless, Life is as meandering and aimless as the iconic star it depicts.
Life focuses not on Dean but on Stock, the man whose 1955 photo essay on the then rising actor produced some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. These photos, including the famous shots of Dean wandering a rainy New York and on his family’s farm in Indiana, were commissioned by Life magazine. The title of the film therefore is an allusion to the historic magazine, though this does not completely justify the slightly comical broadness of the title. But on this point the title is apt. Life is as broad as its own namesake. The film attempts to encompass so much that it ultimately says very little about anything at all.
Dean is portrayed on the cusp of superstardom, the release of East of Eden imminent, and soon to be cast in his most famous role in Rebel Without a Cause. The impending fame hangs like a death sentence over the actor, who over the film’s run time savours the ordinary life soon to be lost to celebrity. Dean is accompanied on this journey by the persistent and driven Stock, a photographer trying to climb up in the world and financially support his ex-wife and son. He understands that Dean is something special, though he struggles to convince his boss of this, as well as contending with Dean’s reluctance to consent to the photo essay. An uneasy bond forms between the two men.
What Life is really about is hard to pinpoint, a point made more frustrating by the hints of a more interesting movie lurking underneath the surface. Corbijn is one of the world’s more renowned photographers whose debut film Control brought another one of the great icons of the 20th century to the big screen, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. He should be a perfect fit for this material but where Control was exact and energetic, Life is vague and limp, progressing with little direction and therefore never amounting to much of anything. The filmmakers never commit to any idea enough for Life to function dramatically. The film flirts with depicting the tension between photographer and subject, but this point is only raised sporadically. Similarly, the first meeting between Stock and Dean suggests an interesting gay subtext that never materializes. Nor does the film offer any insight into the art of photography. As a depiction of the kind of relationship between two men that irrevocably changes them and their life course, Life falters. The relationship between the two men isn’t sketched well enough to sustain the belief that they have forged any kind of connection, let alone a deep and meaningful one, nor does much chemistry exist between the leads. Pattinson, an underrated actor, suffers from playing such a stiff character, prevented from utilizing his natural charisma and unable to do much with what little he is given. Stock’s supposed drive and determination isn’t found in Pattinson’s performance. DeHaan does better with his role, though he looks nothing like Dean, nor is he successful in embodying the essence of the icon. DeHaan excels when playing Dean’s human insecurities but can’t match his superstar charisma. What anyone saw in DeHaan’s casting is a little mystifying. Robert Pattinson would have been a much more interesting choice for Dean, one can’t help envision that version of the film.
Life could have been so much more. It is an incredibly frustrating experience, a seemingly good movie existing between the cracks. Corbijn would have done well to imbue the film with a greater sense of self. The most satisfying moments of the film are the ones that come closest to zeroing in on an idea. Ben Kingsley is enjoyably menacing as a Jack Warner who threatens Dean that “If he is not a good boy, I will fuck you till it hurts.” There are flickers of quality throughout the film. But with so much talent on both sides of the camera, Life has sadly little to recommend.