Berlin Review: Anton Corbijn’s ‘Life’ Starring Robert Pattinson & Dane DeHaan

Berlin Review: Anton Corbijn's 'Life' Starring Robert Pattinson & Dane DeHaan

Anton Corbin knows cool. He can even create it, and has done so time and again in his pictures of musicians and rock stars — he is the photographer of whom Bono reportedly said, “I wish I were as cool as Anton’s photos make me look” (from your lips to God’s ears, Bono). So who better than Corbijn to investigate the myth-making potential of photography and to bring us the story behind one of the most iconically cool photos of the 20th Century? But proving that sometimes we lose sight of the things that are closest to us, Corbijn’s “Life,” which details the relationship between Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock and definingly cool movie star James Dean (which yielded the most famous photo of Dean, just months before his early death) is a weightless thing, skittering across the surface of the legend and only briefly ever daring to take a peek beneath. It looks pretty, and is visually often a creditable recreation of times past, but it gives no substance to Stock and Dean’s relationship, just circumstances. It lacks life.

The problem may be that those circumstances, as set out in Luke Davies‘ undoubtedly well-researched, but flat screenplay, just aren’t that interesting. Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a struggling photographer who has left his ex and his young son in New York to pursue a career in LA, but who’s been stuck doing grunt work, such as on-set photos, rather than juicier assignments he hopes to get from his manager (Joel Edgerton). He meets Dean (Dane DeHaan) at a party given by Nicolas Ray (the film is set just after Dean auditioned for “Rebel Without a Cause,” but at the outset he still has not heard if he has the part) and Dean more or less picks him up and brings him home. But there, actress Pier Angeli (Allessandra Mastronardi) is waiting, and she and Dean make out kittenishly on the sofa much to Stock’s discomfort. It’s the only strong hint we get at Dean’s suspected homosexuality (or maybe bisexuality), which is a shame as in that moment it gives the Stock/Dean dynamic some depth and intrigue other than, “I really really wanna photograph you.”

But Stock does really really want to photograph Dean, recognizing his incipient star power and is hopeful of a career-making ride on his coattails. And so he gets a tentative okay from Life, provided he can deliver his photos before the “East of Eden” premiere, and the rest of the film is basically Stock pursuing Dean around New York and then Indiana, on the farm where he grew up.

Perhaps in the past Corbijn’s casts, populated with more experienced older actors like George Clooney (“The American“) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (“A Most Wanted Man”), have supplied whatever may have been lacking in the director’s lexicon as it regards performance. But [kisses rosary, commends soul to Jesus] neither Pattinson nor DeHaan, promising as they may be, have that many miles on the clock yet, and there’s a hesitance in the work of both actors. DeHaan actually benefits from the ostensibly thankless task of playing Dean (and from certain angles at certain times he looks uncannily like him), who at least has a fully-fledged persona he can play into or try to subvert (seldom the latter). Sadly, Pattinson’s Stock is given much less to do or be, bar a few fleeting moments when his jealousy or resentment of Dean is suggested. Written as a blank slate, he remains so throughout much of the film  though there is a scene in which he vomits on his son, which is awesomely bizarre amid so much muted, frictionless interaction.

Elsewhere, Ben Kingsley gets to have a little fun as mercurial power broker Jack Warner, who alternates between assurances of his studio’s absolute investment in Dean’s success and threats to “fuck” him if he fails to toe the party line. And the film’s episodic narrative allows for some cameos (among them Corbijn’s own), which are good for their, “Huh, James Dean knew Eartha Kitt?” value at least. In fact there’s the peculiar sense throughout “Life” that we’re biding our time, until we get to the next recreation of a famous image  Dean at the barber, Dean clowning around on the farm, Dean (of course) in Times Square, an image so famous as to have become a cliche. 

To be fair, Corbijn does an impressive job of restaging those moments, so much so that one might suspect that he’s not really interested in the people these guys were as much as he is interested in the images  in the interplay of light and dark, the composition, the clothing, the locations. That’s where he seems to come to life, and suddenly I wondered if the whole rest of the film was really just a smokescreen for an experiment in imitation. If so, it may have been successful, but at the cost of the film around it. Corbijn is great at taking real-life flesh and blood people and alchemically rendering them in striking 2-dimensional images that transcend and mythologize the reality, but “Life” shows him fall some way short of achieving the reverse. [C+/B-]

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Comments

Linda

Dennis Stock and James Dean were two men whose paths crossed for just a short moment in time, who each, an artist in his own right, made iconic history, and who each saw in each other what they lacked in themselves. In an interview, Robert Pattinson explained Anton Corbijn’s take on the movie as being about the photographer Dennis Stock. Dane Dehaan’s take on the movie was about the legendary actor James Dean, while Robert Pattinson focused on the personal character of Dennis Stock as a talented, but flawed human being, who struggles to have a relationship with his son based on his own past. Robert Pattinson intricately encompassed the aspects of photographer, artist, father and his acquaintance with James Dean, into Dennis Stock, which makes him a very complex character. He absolutely nails this performance. Robert builds the character of Stock to where his relationship with Dean comes to a crescendo, and Stock’s façade begins to crack, and Jimmy is drawn in enough to hear something besides the sound of his own voice. This is an intricate peek into the lives of two artists who want to make a creative difference while avoiding the personal aspect of their lives. Every human being has a past that becomes part of their future, unless they are moved by someone or some experience that makes change not only possible, but inevitable. This is a good movie. What Robert Pattinson’s does with the role of Dennis Stock is “superb”.

Ali

Well I saw this movie in the UK and thoroughly enjoyed it. It doesn’t quite get enough under Dean’s skin but both performances were pretty darned good and yes, this reviewer can’t forgive Rob Pattinson for Twilight (shucks give the guy a break and get over your envy of his looks and his $). Most reviewers including Little White Lies, Variety and the Telegraph thought he was excellent.

Ali

I saw this movie in Berlin and it was delightful , and yes both actors were pretty good although dean(dane)’s ‘ hair looked a little too false. Pattinson nailed the accent and portrayed stock as the ‘ordinary’ guy with hangups that he was.He’s better that ppl think and suffers because he once played a lifeless vampire in a girls flick. Dehaan is great. The dialogue was a little flat in places but all in all I really enjoyed it. The Hollywood scenes were 50’s magic. Hope I didn’t ‘spoil’. It’s really worth a watch :)

Jonathan

People whining about scenes and dialogue in reviews are infants. You cannot competently review a movie without going into some detail about it. Don’t read the freakin’ review! I swear, I don’t understand this "spoiler" whining phenomenon. Grow up.

Margaret McLaren

Hey, I wrote a little comment about our review for LIFE, and you didn’t publish it because you said it was SPAMMY!!! WHAT? I don’t know what u r talking about. Sorry. Margaret

jasmine

Norm……so right …but I’ll still watch it ..for the other actors…anyways he is in it only for 20 minutes

So Done

This reminds me of a typical Gene Siskel review, where he goes on about what he wished the movie was about, instead of actually reviewing the movie he just saw. Dean and Stock were not best friends, they didn’t know each other that well, they spent a limited amount of time together, and that’s what the film reflects. It’s not a buddy picture. Other reviewers have praised both actors, Pattinson in particular for his "bringing intriguing layers of childish dysfunction" to the character of Stock. And I agree with the others, we didn’t need to know about the vomiting.

Norm

That movie sounded interesting untill I saw Pattinson is in it. Ergh.

Mel

Poro & Mary you’re totally right it’s so irritating, before this review I’ve read another one, which said that what we’ll remember from the movie are "Pattinson’s best performance and the finest projectile vomit scene you’ve ever seen", now thanks to this review I know that Pattinson’s character vomits on his son. You didn’t like the movie – fine, but some people still would like to watch it to form their own opinions and have at least some surprises.

Mary

I have to agree with Poro, all the reviews from Sundance or Berlinale are full of lengthy description of scenes and parts of the dialogue. Guys, we believe you, no need for examples.

Poro

I wish to read just once a review for an unrelesed movie where scenes don’t get spoiled by the reviewers, is that so hard? Why do you do it? Also, this constant referring to this or that actor’s fanbase isn’t amusing, just cringeworthy at this point.

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