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. “Life” 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) waits, 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 be 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. 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-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.