REVIEW: Ilych Goes To Hollywood; "ivans xtc." Explores the Movie Biz's Vainglorious Executives
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/06.03.02) -- "So they began living in their new home -- in which, as always happens, when they got thoroughly settled in they found they were just one room short -- and with the increased income, which as always was just a little too little, but it was all very nice." When Tolstoy wrote those prophetic words, about midway through "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (the greatest and most resonant of his short stories), he was commenting on the predicament of a recently promoted magistrate in the Russian judicial system. But skip ahead a century or so, cross the Pacific, and Tolstoy might just as soon have been writing about Hollywood. That desperate striving for some abstract notion of achievement, the enough-never-being-enough, the narcissism, and self-loathing in nearly equal measure; it's as though Tolstoy were writing with a crystal ball at his side, and therein he saw Jay Moloney, Robert Downey, Jr., and all the other young Turks who've burned brightly, briefly, brilliantly before self-destruction set in.
Tosltoy's Ivan is a man who spends his entire life building up an empty fortress of wealth and privilege only to realize, in his dying breath, that he is mostly miserable, that all his relentless ambition may have been for naught. The genius of the characterization is that you're not sure whether to pity or despise Ivan, so you do a little of both, because you see too much of yourself in him to do anything but. It's the same odd mix of emotions that stirs up when you hear about the latest victim of Hollywood's fast-living, crash-and-burn mentality, so it's more than fitting that Bernard Rose was partly inspired to make his new film, "ivans xtc." (which premiered at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival), by the crashing-and-burning of Maloney, who was once Rose's agent. The rest of the impetus comes (allegedly) from Tolstoy and from Rose's own experiences pounding the Hollywood pavement, having parlayed his "Paperhouse" debut into the mainstream hit "Candyman," only to watch the subsequent "Anna Karenina" taken out of his hands (by Mel Gibson's company) and re-cut. Witty, candid anecdotes about the "Anna Karenina" fiasco, taken from Rose's own diary, punctuate the "ivans xtc." press kit, and it seems like Rose is coming from a can't-miss perspective. The time is right for a Hollywood expose made from outside the barred editing-room door.
But "ivans xtc." does miss, by as much as or more than "Anna Karenina" itself, and the best you can ultimately say about this rambling, improvised mess is that it isn't quite as shrill and self-satisfied as that other insider-industry debacle, "Timecode." (There are, however, countless similarities between the two films, right down to their digital-video aesthetics and annoyingly new-agey titles.) Unlike Mike Figgis, Rose at least has the good sense to realize that he's working in much-mined territory here and doesn't act like he's saying anything too profound. Rose also uses fewer "professional" actors in his cast -- the idea was to cast people in roles similar to their own lives, such as the CAA agent Adam Krentzman playing an agent -- which makes the laughably mannered performances somewhat more excusable than in Figgis' all-star parade. But Rose finds his own ways of wrecking the potential of his concept, not the least of which is by throwing out nearly the entire source text, save for the protagonist's name. "ivans xtc." is no more "based on" "The Death of Ivan Ilych" than was "Freddy Got Fingered."
Rose is, of course, entitled to do as he pleases; he's not the first filmmaker to play fast and loose with a literary source. Yet, given his own experiences and the glove-like fit of Tolstoy's story, it's some kind of madness that sees Rose deviate from Tolstoy at nearly every step, always to the film's detriment. Not unlike the Rose-Maloney connection, Tolstoy was inspired to write "Ivan Ilych" by the life of a real public prosecutor; but whereas Tolstoy spends the breadth of his story slowly making Ivan more and more inseparable from the reader (and thereby all the more tragic), Rose seems hell-bent on making his Ivan (played by Danny Huston, son of John) as distant from us as possible. Three years passed between "Anna Karenina" and the making of this film, but in that time, Rose has failed to amass the necessary distance from his living Hollywood nightmare. So, the temperament of "ivans xtc." is like that of a child who has been offered some favorite food on a silver platter and rejected it just to be spiteful.
Rose's Ivan spends a good deal of "ivans xtc." trying to package a vain Hollywood superstar (the deliciously hammy Peter Weller, in one of the film's better turns) with a script no one seems to like and which Ivan doesn't even seem to have read. But why? Is this really how Rose sees Hollywood? Part of Tolstoy's resonance is his depiction of Ivan's unchecked ambition, his full-throttle hurling of himself into his work at the expense of anything else meaningful in life. But Rose's Ivan doesn't seem ambitious about anything except snorting more coke up his nose and, in the film's most pedantic moments, Rose seems to be offering us this would-be shocking depiction of Hollywood's continued white-powder romance as a way of hoisting himself above the action in a saintly fashion. (It's as though Rose's primary credential for making this film is that he doesn't do drugs himself.)
The big moment of revelation here, as in the short story, is when the dying Ivan finds himself unable to obscure thoughts of his impending demise with so much as a single, meaningful post-childhood memory. But given his greatest opportunity to make some intelligent comment on Hollywood's tireless vainglory, its paralyzing fear of death/anonymity, Rose junks it up. Rather than Tolstoy's wonderful irony -- that not-knowing whether Ivan really has lived a failed life -- is replaced by Rose's assurance that Ivan is worthless and that cancer is his punishment. Is Rose's Ivan supposed to be one of the callow executives who destroyed "Anna Karenina"? Or, in some strange, self-immolating way, is he Rose's alter-ego -- the monster (like the blind father in Rose's own "Paperhouse") that Hollywood has forced him to become? Ultimately, Rose can't tell the two apart -- he's too bitter to see straight -- and neither can we. The only certainty is that if Tolstoy's Ivan had been this much of an opportunistic prick, it's doubtful that anyone would still be reading (let alone making movies) about him today.