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Or Something Like It: Corbijn Resurrects Dean Without a Cause

Anton Corbijn Life PosterFollowing his 2014 John Le Carre adaptation A Man Most Wanted, director Anton Corbijn delves into the life of another desired individual, cherished cinematic icon James Dean with Life. Focusing on the behind-the-scenes relationship between Dean and photographer Dennis Stock during the creation of a belabored, but eventually fruitful 1955 photo shoot for the titular magazine, Luke Davies’ screenplay falls short of showcasing any kind of notable bond potentially worth documenting.

Two artists come together for what would eventually become a particularly notable moment for them both and Corbijn does a fine job of catching the significance of changing times. Dean exhibits the sort of Beat sensibility that had revived a new generation’s interest in literature the decade prior, and Corbijn catches him just at the cusp of the stardom that would possess the public’s attention. But neither persona manages to be depicted with any real zest or charisma, and Davies’ screenplay never manages to delve deeper than the usual sort of superficial male bonding, here built on mutual consternation of the severe limitations of both their professions.

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a New York transplant in 1950s Los Angeles, looking to build his portfolio as a photographer. Tired of the empty-headed red carpet cavalcade, Stock tries to convince his boss (Joel Edgerton) at Magnum Photos to allow him side assignments of his choosing. A chance encounter at a party thrown by Nicholas Ray allows Stock to meet up-and-coming star James Dean (Dane DeHaan), who has recently headlined Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), though the film hasn’t premiered yet. Immediately seeing something captivating in the young star, Stock convinces his boss to let him follow Dean for a possible profile in Life magazine. What transpires is a portrait of the burgeoning relationship between these men during the creation of stock’s 1955 photo shoot.

Even with Corbijn’s wisely drawn parameters of mapping out a figure like Dean, we still never get too close. Lazy, and a bit self-possessed, he’s presented as the type of celebrity who just had the ‘it’ factor, like Marilyn Monroe. Although he’s got the mannerisms, the mumbling, and is styled to resemble the tragic actor, Dane DeHaan never seems to inhabit the essence of Dean, or whatever statements like that truly mean. Much like Michelle Williams’ playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn (2011), DeHaan is best served when at rest and when photographed from certain angles—but usually, we’re constantly reminded we are watching a talented actor doing his best to portray Dean. But DeHaan is much more interesting as Lucien Carr in the 2013 John Krokidas film Kill Your Darling, set a decade prior in an episode of obscure drama from the Beat set.

Pattinson is an interesting juxtaposition here only because it sometimes seems Corbijn would have been better served to have him play Dean, as his own celebrity status represents a new horizon, the modern equivalent of star fucking in the Hollywood system. But if we walk away feeling Dean is still an enigmatic figure, Dennis Stock comes across as mildly sycophantic and rather banal personality, swirled up in the kind of unplanned family woes plaguing too many overzealous youths to bother mentioning.

Corbin thankfully avoids drawing the period studio system as caricature (at least compared to something like Trumbo), though we only have Ben Kingsley as a rather uptight but menacing Jack Warner to go by. Here, the studio magnate isn’t a tyrant but a businessman with certain expectations about his ‘property,’ something Dean rebelled against from the outset, and might have been something much more interested to focus on. A bunch of other notables show up, portrayed by performers who bear, at best, passing resemblance to names like Natalie Wood, Nicholas Ray, or Eartha Kitt—but Corbijn’s merely trying to paint a likeness, which more or less succeeds as far as these types of exercises go.

Danish DoP Charlotte Bruus Chistensen (the favored cinematographer of Thomas Vinterberg) does a handsome job of capturing the period with the film’s overly saturated palette, setting us up for a nostalgic twinge. To be sure, Life presents itself as more polished than Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), starring James Franco (who has also portrayed Dean) as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg during his obscenity trial for the titular poem, if only because Corbijn manages to avoid a certain staginess. But it lacks the same sense of persona Corbijn was able to obtain in his debut, Control, a beautifully shot black and white odyssey into the tragic life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

Considering Corbijn’s noted early career as a photographer, one would assume Stock to be an easy cipher, but while Pattinson’s given all the right lines to utter about a man pursuing his dreams, it’s never quite apparent, instead flatly drawn in interactions with boss Joel Edgerton (in a thankless role). Those unfamiliar with any of Dean’s three electric performances will most likely seem confused by what all the fuss was about.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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