Dying in a car accident in 1955 at the age of 24, James Dean had just three major films to his credit, two of which were released posthumously — including Rebel Without a Cause, the generational banner that at once confirmed his stardom and assured his legacy.
Dean’s lasting influence as a tragic screen talisman makes him ripe for the kind of movie that the narrowly defined Life might have been and in fact ought to have been. It ends up demystifying Dean, perhaps by accident but no less regrettably.
This looked going in like the perfect project for director Anton Corbijn, a craftsman of both still and motion cameras. He created classic images for rock acts U2 and Joy Division and superbly conjured the latter’s tragic singer Ian Curtis with his debut film Control.
The slim screenplay by Luke Davies, who captured lightning in 2006 with the Heath Ledger junkie drama Candy, also seemed like a great idea going in. The slim narrative focuses on the last few months of Dean’s life, when he was about to become a major celebrity with the release of East of Eden yet wished he could return to the quiet anonymity of life on his family’s farm in Fairmount, Indiana.
Dean, played with skill but not deep insight by non-lookalike Dane DeHaan, meets and finds a kindred spirit in Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock, a freelance photographer with marital and family issues. Stock also hates Hollywood artifice, aspiring to be more than just another “red-carpet gorilla.”
He convinces a dubious Life editor (Joel Edgerton) that Dean is about to become a household name, and the two disaffected young men set out to make what will later become a classic photo spread.
Except you know what they say, about how you don’t want to know how the sausage is made. The details of watching Dean and Stock get to know each other and stumble toward that famed pictorial are decidedly ho-hum, even with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen delivering widespread images that strongly evoke the era.
An example of this is the recreation of the most famous Dean image of all, the one of him moodily striding through New York’s Times Square in the rain, smoking a cigarette and with his coat collar turned up.
On a poster, it inspires awe. In this movie, it looks like just a lucky snapshot.
That’s Life for you, and much more’s the pity for it.