“Life” stars the always ace Dane DeHaan as James Dean opposite Robert Pattinson, in yet another dramatic turn, as Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock. A budding, and subtly homoerotic, friendship unfolds as the film chronicles the story behind Stock’s 1955 photo spread, circa “East of Eden,” that put emerging heartthrob Dean on the map—just seven months before his unexpected death at 24.
Written by Aussie scribe Luke Davies–who co-adapted his novel “Candy” into the 2006 drug drama starring Heath Ledger–“Life” isn’t music video turned filmmaker Corbijn’s first tread in biopic territory. His 2007 “Control” plunged into the final days in the life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, starring Sam Riley. Corbijn knows how to direct attractive adonises onscreen. But is “Life” worth all the ballyhoo? Based on early Berlinale reviews, rounded up below, critics are tussling over this one.
“More than a standard celebrity bio, however, the pic is a loving valentine from photographer-turned-helmer Corbijn to his name-making profession, with Robert Pattinson in a sly turn as Dennis Stock, the shutterbug who landed Dean a now-classic Life magazine spread. It’s the peculiarly moving, even subtly queer friendship between the two men that distinguishes ‘Life’ from standard inside-Hollywood fare, while gorgeous production values and ace star turns make it a thoroughly marketable arthouse prospect.”
“The conflict concerning whether James will or won’t deliver for Dennis’ camera never packs much urgency. Nor does the relationship between them grow in any satisfying way. For much of the film they seem to move on parallel rather than interlocking tracks, and when James opens up during the train trip to Indiana about the painful loss of his mother as a child, it registers as a monologue, not a genuine response to a deepening friendship. DeHaan is solid in this scene and later, when James lets down his defenses and reveals his solitude. And yet the film mostly grasps for unearned emotions.”
Indiewire, more critical of this same scene:
“DeHaan, despite his best efforts, doesn’t exactly resemble the actor, and his performance also registers as caricature: He nails the voice and posture but only to the level of a well-honed impersonation. The disconnect is all the more evident in DeHaan’s rapport with Pattinson. There’s a heartfelt moment between the two on a train ride to Indiana where DeHaan recounts a moment from his childhood when his mother passed away. The exchange seems geared toward lending insight into his psyche, but Pattinson appears unaffected by it. If the character doesn’t care, why should we?”
“It’s a laborious, lugubrious movie maintained at a somnolent cool-jazz tempo – a waxworky piece of American icon worship featuring a sympathetic but mannered performance from Dane DeHaan impersonating James Dean, whose supposed legendary moodiness the film seems to want to imitate in every drowsy particular. Scene follows scene at a sleepwalking pace. And the complexity of Dean’s sexual identity is something the movie leaves untouched, and keeps its tense hints at the subject largely in a heavy closet of its own making.”
“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 at all, 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 was wondering 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.”