Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Driven drummer comes up against maniacal mentor in Damien Chazelle's WHIPLASH

Another case of inflated expectations (not entirely sinking but) dragging down a serviceable, feel-good (after feeling really bad) movie featuring a few terrific scenes, WHIPLASH is musical melodrama writ very large. One of those "if you'll believe this, you'll believe most anything" compilations of unlikely events growing even more unlikely as they lead to a thrilling, if ridiculous, climax, the film is certainly fun in its over-the-top way. As written and directed by Damien Chazelle (his follow-up to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), this second full-lengther also features an all-stops-out performance from an actor, J. K. Simmons, whom people will now claim has suddenly come into his own.

Except that Simmons has been his very capable "own man" for almost three decades now. He's never given anything less than a good performance that I've seen. It's just that here, he finally gets star billing -- along with a one-note role that he rips into and tears to shreds. Simmons plays Professor Fletcher, the much-feared music teacher and orchestra leader of the famed New York-based music school which our hero, Andrew (Miles Teller) attends in the hopes of becoming a bigtime drummer. Neither one-note role offer much in the way of recognizable human nature or nuance. Writer/director Chazelle, shown above, makes Fletcher, below, a mustache-twirling villain, the likes of whom we've not seen since Snidely Whiplash (whom I suddenly realize must have been the inspiration behind this film), pitted against the naive-but-talented, obsessively driven Andrew.

What happens in the course of the movie defies credibility a number of times, but for those who like their melodrama lip-smackingly pungent, this one offers plenty of juice. The ongoing duet of symbolically (and once nearly literally) death-defying stunts keeps upping the ante until, if I'm not mistaken, we're at Carnegie Hall, for Christ's sake.

Performances are quite good, working wonderfully well for melodrama (Joan Crawford would have loved this movie), including the supporting performances from Paul Reiser (lovely and low-keyed as Andrew's dad), Melissa Benoist (below, left, as his unappreciated girlfriend), and Chris Mulkey (as Uncle Frank). The one dinner scene in which Mulkey appears seems to have been written, as has so much else in the movie, with a clear point to make and so comes off as a little unreal, unlike any actual dinner you might have witnessed. Chazelle does not yet have the ability to finesse dialog in the manner that real dialog happens -- unless it's super-confrontational. He's certainly good at that.

Chazelle also keeps trying to give the Fletcher character a saving grace or two, and this grows a bit silly over time, as Simmons is clearly playing the guy as evil, even and especially when he appears to be going for "nice."

The film's final scene, which offers the what-you've-been-waiting-for showdown, also contains some of the worst, back-and-forth, tennis-tournament cinematography I've viewed all year.

While it is indeed great to see Simmons in another leading role (most people missed him in The Music Never Stopped), next time I'll hope for something a little more believable (but probably not nearly as much fun). Mr. Teller, below, who bids fair to become the best actor of his young generation, is fine once again. He does a bang-up job on the drums, too, and will certainly convince you that he can beat the hell out of 'em. But, as called for here, he is either cowed or loud, so this is nowhere near as nuanced a performance as he gives in the current Two Night Stand or has given elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong: Whiplash, eminently watchable, is and a hoot and a half. But people, please: Are you really taking this movie seriously?

The film -- from Sony Pictures Classics and running 106 minutes -- opens theatrically this Friday, October 10, in Los Angeles (at The Landmark, AMC Century City 15 and Hollywood Arclight) and New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Regal Union Square and Cinemas 123) and will expand throughout the country in the weeks following. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

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