Jude Law is at his best in contained performances defined by calculation and savviness that mask his characters’ deep-seated insecurities. His icy turn as the robot in “A.I.” epitomized this tendency, which has appropriately led to a fruitful career but also made him something of a difficult leading man. When Chris Rock joked at the 2005 Oscar ceremony that Law “was in every movie I have seen in the last four years,” while pretending that he had never heard of Law before, the comedian delivered a backhanded compliment (even though the actor allegedly fired his agent over the remarks): Law’s subdued approach was too slippery for traditional superstardom. Now comes “Dom Hemingway,” which offers further proof of Law’s specific appeal — by completely draining it from the picture.
Things start to go immediately downhill with the movie’s opening monologue, in which Law, in the title role, gazes at the camera and waxes poetic about his domineering penis. Bare-chested, with an expression defined by muttonchops and a steely-eyed gaze, Law tosses out one self-congratulatory remark about his member after another, calling it a “cheetah cock” and declaring that “wars should be fought over it.” The gonzo performance finds Law playing a moody London safecracker released from prison after a dozen years and seeking to collect a longstanding debt.
But setting all that aside, “Dom Hemingway” is mostly a feature-length extension of its hyper-sexualized prologue, which climaxes with the reveal that the soon-to-be-released Dom has been receiving fellatio from a prison mate. At first, the sheer vulgarity of Dom’s delivery plays like sensationalistic comedy, but then it just grows exhausting and abrasive. Dom gets off, but where does that leave the rest of us?
Writer-director Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) goes great length to imbue the story with the various slick ingredients to create the impression of a first-rate heist saga, and there’s certainly plenty of dazzling elements established early on. As a snazzy soundtrack underscores Dom’s emergence from the slammer, Shepard piles up a series of mini-chapter headings that comment on the criminal’s plight (“12 Years Is a Long Time,” “A Weekend in the Country Among Thieves”). At first, these devices create the impression of a layered, novelistic achievement designed to echo the overconfident and dangerous subjectivity of the protagonist. Dom has some enjoyably morbid quirks, veering from psychopath to affable colleague in a matter of moments — at one point, beating up the man who slept with his ex-wife while Dom was locked away, he growls, “I should kill you, but I really want a pint.” Then he’s all good and cheery again, ready to live to the fullest with a pair of prostitutes waiting for him as a welcome home gift by his pals. The next morning, quivering beneath a pair of shades, he mutters, “I fucked myself to death.”
But while Dom’s an amusing train wreck, and Law evidently had fun burrowing into the the character’s wacky extremes, the narrative around him is as thin as his values. A lavish getaway with the crime boss he refused to narc on (a wasted Demian Bichir) and Dom’s old colleague Dickie (Richard E. Grant, amusingly deadpan) culminates with the group getting into a seemingly lethal car crash and walking away more or less unscathed (with one notable exception). The event transpires in a ridiculously stylized sequence set to classical music that’s about as impressively art directed as one of Law’s Dior commercials, and seems designed to suggest that the he’s blind to his recklessness. But it’s mostly just eye candy calculated to give the impression of a project with more on its mind.
Instead, Dom’s attempts to get his life back on track, as he battles to rejuvenate a relationship with the son of a formerly powerful gangster and rekindle his connection with his estranged daughter, quickly go nowhere. In extensive scenes that find Dom hurting to prove his worth — struggling to crack open a safe in minutes, tracking down the woman who stole his loot — he never once truly receives his comeuppance. The movie becomes so enamored of its leading man’s eccentricities that it gets consumed by his temperament, and ends with a shrug.
For all its vibrant, flamboyant aspects, “Dom Hemingway” is a resoundingly empty star vehicle. It gives Law a character too thinly crafted to justify his eccentricities. He acts his heart out for a role that has no heart. We know early on that Dom can do better than this; it doesn’t take much longer to realize that Law can, too.
Criticwire Grade: C-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fox Searchlight releases “Dom Hemingway” this week. Law’s appeal could yield a solid opening weekend, but it’s bound to get lost in the shuffle in the coming weeks.