Sunday, May 18, 2014

Blow Hard: Jude Law in Dom Hemingway

In Richard Shepard's incessantly verbose Dom Hemingway, Jude Law plays the title character, a British safecracker who has spent 12 years in prison for not ratting out his boss. Pumped up like a Cockney Jake LaMotta and with Popeye biceps to match, Hemingway is a boastful blowhard who in the opening scene gets progressively hard from the blow job he's receiving from a fellow prisoner. Hemingway, eager to be released so he can finally get the money owed him, addresses the camera while crowing about being – quite literally – the cock of the walk until he finally ejaculates. The stunt of watching Jude Law, who has built a career portraying mostly mild-mannered sorts, spitting invective at the same pace as his mounting erection is a clever joke. But Dom Hemingway can't sustain the cartoon intensity of its lead character because there's nothing behind the bluster. It's a one-note joke about potency and it dies with the money shot.

While there is some semblance of a plot, there isn't much drive in the story beyond Dom's bottomless rage. Besides the infantile rages, which are self-consciously peppered with equal proportions of verbal acuity and street slang, there is little dramatic motivation provided to make much sense of his behaviour. And you get the feeling that we're not supposed to make much sense of it. Dom Hemingway is the bastard child of Tarantino, where dialogue doesn't reveal character but instead reflects back on itself to make us feel hip to its style and sparing the viewer ever engaging the possibility of dramatic content. Despite the slick nihilism of the picture, though, Jude Law still manages to hold the audience with the musical rhythms of his patter turning the pungent dialogue into British working-class rap. If early in his career, Law seemed almost shy of the camera discovering something beneath his cultivated charm (as he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley), he has been a stronger presence on the screen in recent years. Whether it's in the soulful humour and resourcefulness he brings to Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, or the traces of fragile, unarticulated passion he revealed as Karenin in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, Jude Law has shed the Teflon that made him so opaque in pictures like Alfie and Closer. (Back then, he made his strongest impression as a mecha, Gigolo Joe, in Steven Spielberg's A.I.) In Dom Hemingway, he gives himself over to the role much like Terrence Stamp did in a similar part in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey except that Law is left showboating (unlike Stamp) because the character has no role to play, or any real demons to confront.

Jude Law & Richard E. Grant
Shepard saddles Hemingway with a best friend, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), who accompanies him to the villa of Dom's former boss, Ivan (Demián Bichir), to collect his cash. But Grant is doing the straight man role here. While that may seem as daring as having Law playing the macho psychopath, Grant ends up completely stranded. Richard E. Grant brought real Shakespearean fire to his raging Thespian in Withnail & I, but playing passive in Dom Hemingway leaves him gutted. You can't figure out why these two are such loyal friends. They seemed to be joined at the hip because the screenplay tells them so. (Shepard's earlier 2005 feature, The Matador, had a similar problem with Pierce Brosnan playing a self-destructive hit-man who also goes on numerous verbal rampages for no apparent purpose as he inexplicably teams up with a mild-mannered businessman played by Greg Kinnear.)

The plot of Dom Hemingway seems just as arbitrary as its characterizations. When Dom openly flirts with Ivan's Romanian girlfriend Paolina (Mădălina Diana Ghenea) and aggressively insults the crime boss, it's mordantly funny, but it makes no sense given his pure expediency. Who knows? Perhaps we're supposed to think that his raging dick also makes him a stupid dick. But instead of getting himself killed, Dom apologizes and Ivan delivers £750,000 and provides a wild night of partying. Afterwards, they go driving in Ivan's car when a smash-up leaves Ivan dead and Paolina gone with Dom's cash. As Dom goes on a tear to find his dough, Melody (Kerry Condon), a reflectively sweet party girl he'd been hanging with, and whose life he'd saved at the crash, tells him sagely that he's destined for good luck. His fortune turns out to be the possibility to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), who has hated him since her mother died and her dad went to prison. Now a grandfather, Dom has to choose between the lost cash and the chance at being a proper parent. Guess which side wins out? (Our bad luck.)

In a sense, Dom Hemingway is a throwaway lark that, like Sexy Beast, where Ben Kingsley played a similar violent con on a mission, gives actors known for certain character roles a chance to try their chops playing against type. But the picture is also reflective of what passes for genre filmmaking today. There was a time when many directors sought to transcend genre by thinking past it and taking the audience into uncharted ground. But the crime genre, including Pulp Fiction and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is no longer about daring forays down roads to perdition. Their trails ultimately lead nowhere.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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