Robert Pattinson was cast in the biggest role of his burgeoning career not as an actor but an object of lust. The "Twilight" movies, which conclude with the final adaptation of Stephanie Meyers' vampiric book series this fall, fit Pattinson so perfectly as immortal hottie Edward Cullen that the franchise made him a star even before the release of the first installment. With a performance style exclusively composed of sullen glances and distant sighs, Pattinson was Meyer's lascivious prose incarnate. As "Twilight" comes to an end, however, Pattinson's wooden schtick has started to tread water, with "Bel Ami" opening this week to provide the latest example.
Having achieved global celebrity at such an early stage in his career, Pattinson's apparent interest in more mature dramatic material deserves some rudimentary appreciation, but "Bel Ami" never provides him with the opportunity to develop his range. A stilted adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's 1885 novel about a young British entrepreneur making his way to the top of a Paris-based aristocracy by sleeping around, directors Declan Dennellan and Nick Ormerod complement the most rudimentary aspects of Pattinson's lifeless screen presence. Pattinson portrays the monotonous Georges Duroy in two equally dry modes: scowls and smirks.
In town straight out of military experiences in Algeria, he gets right to work infiltrating the richest local scene, tracking down former soldier pal Charles (Philip Glenister) and promptly wooing every woman among his close circle of friends. These include young Clotilde (Christina Ricci, who at least appears to be enjoying the basic screenplay commands to flutter her eyelashes), one of several married women Georges proceeds to bed with the promise of something more. Ultimately, he sets his sights on Charles' wife, the worldly Madeleine (Uma Thurman), who detects the young man's self-serving agenda but plays along anyway.
Nevertheless, the real focus is Georges' ability to use sexual prowess to attain power, and it does so without a modicum of depth or insight into the character's operating motives or how the mores of the period sustain his greed. Instead, Pattinson lurks through one mannered scene after another, his eyes locked in position like dark marbles even when in the throes of an onscreen orgasm.
This is a unique moment to investigate the boundaries of Pattinson's abilities. Just two weeks ago, his leading role in David Cronenberg's equally morbid "Cosmopolis" was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival. While Cronenberg's adaptation of Don Delillo's novella has a sharper, more incisive script, littered with sly capitalist indictments, it asks little of Pattinson in much the same manner as "Twilight" and its sequels. As with those movies, the Pattinson character serves to reflect the ideas and attitudes of those around him.
The root problem goes back to the origins of Pattinson's fame, a trajectory oddly mirrored by the plot of "Bel Ami." Through no qualifications other than his social affiliations and good luck, Georges lands a gig as a newspaper journalist and promptly finds himself under fire for his nonexistent writing skills. Thrust into the limelight, Pattinson has similarly found a gateway to ambitious projects without proving his performative value.
There's no doubting his legitimate urge to improve. The actor has expressed interest in working with Todd Solondz, whose tender character study "Dark Horse" opens this week. Looking at "Dark Horse," it's hard to imagine swapping the schlubby lead Jordan Gelber, who plays a grown bachelor still living with his demanding parents, for the expressionless Pattinson. To date, he simply gives no impression of any emotional complexities beneath the surface of his immaculate features.
Attempting to play aggressive charmers, Pattinson has said he takes his inspiration from that requisite archetype for soulful tough guys, James Dean. To grow as an actor, however, he must push beyond that mold and recreate his image with a different kind of challenge. Clearly, he's an actor with understatement on his side; perhaps Keanu Reeves' career path could lead him in a more fruitful direction. For now, he's just a cold face. Both "Cosmopolis" and "Bel Ami" end with close-ups of Pattinson's dreary stare. After the final "Twilight" movie hits theaters this fall, he will need to find somewhere meaningful to focus his gaze. Unlike Edward Cullen, acting careers don't live forever.
Criticwire grade: D
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Bel Ami" opens in limited release this Friday, and while Pattinson's fame elevate its presence, the movie is unlikely to draw large crowds. However, it has already been released on VOD by Magnolia Pictures and seems well-positioned to perform well there.