Saw the triple-Oscar winner a couple of weeks ago. The film is about a young and talented drummer and his teacher at a Julliard-like arts school who puts him through the ringer personally and musically. The two technical awards were for editing and sound mixing; the acting Oscar was the first foregone conclusion of the awards—Best Supporting Oscar for J.K. Simmons.
In some ways, this was the little-film-that-could. Simmons was a lock early on, but it was a shock to most people when the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (a category that was a controversial choice—but that’s another article).
It’s a solid and well-done film, but I have a few reservations. The tale of the professor/teacher/trainer that pushes you beyond your conceived limits is an old one, and this is just another variation on the same. What helps this old story is that drumming is a visceral art—you can see it and you can hear it—solid film material in theory. The process of creation, practice and improvement is far easier to portray than writing music, painting, or—God help us—writing a book.
Apparently a few scenes were filmed at first, which were then used to lure funding for the rest. Some have called it a short expanded into a feature. In any case, the film feels like an expanded short. There are really just three-and-a-half people in it: the young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, who has a solid career in front of him), the teacher Fletcher (Simmons), Andrews’s father (Paul Reiser, who gives the film a much-needed grounding) and the half-character Nicole (Melissa Benoist), Andrew’s sometime girlfriend.
There are other characters, of course, but they don’t feel fleshed out in the same way. The world of the film also seems a bit thin. The heart of the film is in the rehearsing and performing spaces, of course, which makes sense. It’s when the characters venture out from there that the films seems stretched out and padded.
Most of the attention has been paid to Simmons, which makes sense, too. He seems to have won pretty much every Supporting Actor Award available last year, and in some ways deserves it. The Academy loves awarding great performances from journeymen (or –women) who have been doing solid unrecognized work for years. (Full disclosure: I felt vindicated with this performance and all the awards, as I have thought of Simmons as under-recognized for years; see http://film-prof.com/2014/02/16/five-more-supporting-performances-that-dont-get-the-attention-they-deserve/).
But when watching it, I thought it first deserved Best Part of the Year—or many a year. The part was practically created to win awards, and it’s an actor’s delight. Just as one critic noted that whoever played Viola in Shakespeare in Love (1998) would win the Oscar because the part was so good, I think the same happened here. Not that Simmons doesn’t hit every note—many of which are profane and vicious. He does, but in spite of the fact that the script demands scenes of physical and emotional violence, and we see the character’s soft side a few times to round out the harsh edges, we don’t really get a fully realized character here. The anger is there, the tears and sadness are present, and the warmth (real or not) is expressed, but they don’t quite add up to a coherent character. As much as I have supported Simmons over the years and don’t begrudge him the Oscar, I have great sympathy for those who thought that Mark Ruffalo deserved it for Foxcatcher, where he gave a more modulated and subtle performance.
Unfortunately, the same is true with Miles Teller’s Andrew. We are sympathetic to him throughout most of the film, and yet he’s an arrogant, condescending jerk who blows off a positive relationship because he’s convinced it will limit his art. I understand the argument, but didn’t believe all these pieces were coming out of the same person.
There are also simply unbelievable turns of event that arise every so often that seem to come less from the world the film created than the hand of a screenwriter creating more barriers for his characters to climb over.
If’ you’re sensitive to rough language, stay aware. If you’re sensitive to abuse, even artistic abuse, stay away. But if you want to see some solid performances attached to an intense story of art, mentorship, and the fine line between encouragement and cruelty, this is a story for you. My best friend and his wife were shaken after seeing this. As an artist and performer myself, I know something of this world and wasn’t so affected. But it’s the latest entry into the world of a few unanswerable questions: Where’s the line between intense training and abuse, and will a full-out dedication to one’s art mean that love and life are impossible? The film gives no answers to either question, but gives plenty of evidence of what’s at stake.