Review by Chris Dempsey.
Directed by Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man) from a screenplay written by Australian Luke Davies (Candy), Life is a biographical look into the friendship between actor James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock. Set between Dean’s starring roles in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, the film accounts for the rebellious heartthrob’s rise to stardom and the story behind his iconic portraits in Life Magazine.
Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a freelance photographer for the Mangum Photos Agency, assigned to capturing Hollywood’s biggest stars on the red carpet and behind-the-scenes. When he meets a young James Dean (Dane DeHaan) at a party and is drawn to his notable ‘purity’ against his superficial Hollywood counterparts, the two begin an unlikely friendship that seems mutually beneficial. Stock strikes a deal with the actor that allows him an exclusive with the rising star and the opportunity to break into more meaningful assignments, while Dean gets widespread exposure in Life Magazine. But through the glitz and glam of the Hollywood Era, both seem to genuinely need the other’s friendship while still unwilling to relinquish the knowledge that in Los Angeles, everybody wants something.
Pattinson is strong as the famed photographer and has chosen another wise drama piece in his post-Twilight career. Playing the straight man to Dean’s sporadic ways, Pattinson imbues Stock with a sense of desperation that’s underlined with uncertainty. There seems to be some critical pieces missing from his persona though, as it appears that his motivations take the place of actual characterisation for the man behind the camera. Stock is also dealing with an ex-wife (Stella Schnabel) and is essentially an absentee father to his son (Jack Fulton) in New York, although it becomes clear that his inability to fulfill his paternal duties comes not from a lack of desire but rather a lack of knowing how. This side thread of his story though is severely undercooked, and would have been served better by having more relevance to the main storyline than just the obvious parallels that come late in the film to Dean’s deceased mother.
DeHaan does well in to imitate Dean’s relaxed mannerisms and overly breathy vocals, rarely relying on these too strongly, but never falling so far into them that his portrayal becomes a caricature. There are times when Dehaan captures Dean perfectly with an almost exact likeness, but there are also other moments where the differences are much more noticeable and are unfortunately prone to taking you out of the film (that is, if you’re familiar with Dean in the first place). Even still, Dehaan delivers a sensual performance with such intensity and drive that his resemblance to Dean won’t matter too much.
The two leads have good chemistry together, with both emitting a want of friendship to escape their solitude but neither willing to break down their barriers to fully accept another in. Early on there’s a clear case of homoerotic tones as Dean looks Stock up and down and flirtatiously offers him a ride on his “sickle” (motorcycle), and, for a moment, it appears as if the film is going to follow a different form of friendship. Alas, this is not the case, and the film fails to follow through on long-standing rumors of Dean’s fluid sexuality. Then again, it may not have been Corijn’s intention to begin with. Yet, with one man pursuing the other back and forth, this is a clear love story, which just happens to follow a ‘platonic’ friendship of two straight men.
The films also offers a strong supporting cast, notably Ben Kingsley (Shutter Island) as the studio head; Jack Warner, that is equal parts Walt Disney and pure malice; Alessandra Mastronardi (To Rome With Love), a convincing Pier Angeli, the Italian starlet who steals Dean’s heart early on; and Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby), who makes an appearance as the editor of the Magnum agency, although his screen time is limited to a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes. Fanatics of the Golden Era will have a fun time with the myriad of guest appearances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars, such as Natalie Wood, Eartha Kitt and Nicholas Ray.
Corbijn places little emphasis on the iconic photos as they are taken apart from a few, such as Dean’s portrait on the misty streets of Times Square, and appear to happen without much notice. It seems like a missed opportunity to let these moments go by without much fan-fare, and even under the obvious attempt to show these photographs as occurring without any sense of foresight to how famous they would one day become, these moments still lack a certain magic. Pattinson does play Stock with a sneakiness every time he draws the camera to his eye, as if under the impression that capturing the moment could infringe upon its authenticity if not done with the utmost care. Unfortunately, it’s this very factor that encapsulates what ultimately ensures the two men cannot truly connect, as one attempts to capture life, and the other attempts to live it.
Another underlining problem is that the characters of Stock and Dean both tend to drift without feeling any real sense of being tied down in their worlds. Their relationship rarely reaches the levels of friendship that it seemingly should, and quite often instead feel as if the two are merely together because they just have nothing else. Whether intentional or not, it comes at the cost of both never really seeming to grow over the course of their arcs. This isn’t helped by a lack of urgency, as even with the ticking time bomb of Stock’s re-assignment to Japan and the continued appointments made for Dean, the two continue to drag their feet at every turn without much sense of consequence.
Overall, Life offers a candid look into the lives of two lonely souls, one of which just happens to be one of Hollywood’s most legendary movie stars, looking for a true connection in an otherwise superficial world, DeHaan’s depiction of Dean may not be perfect, but his effort alone should appease anyone that finds fault.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆