Tis the season for Brits to make low-budget, digital-format digs at Hollywood, first with Mike Figgis’ exceedingly creative, four-panel “Time Code” and now in Bernard Rose’s somber, doom-laden “ivansxtc. (To Live and Die in Hollywood).” Aesthetically messy and far from trenchant in that it has nothing new to say about the movie capital that hasn’t been said much more acutely in the past, pic nonetheless achieves a certain poignancy through its sensitivity to mortality in a context where illness and death are often thought of primarily in terms of gossip, blown deals and lost money. Although commercial prospects are limited, moody piece could develop a small cult following and in the broader picture stands as another interesting example of a name filmmaker taking the plunge into stripped-down, no-frills High Def/digital features.
In his press notes, Rose (“Candyman,” “Immortal Beloved”) begins by announcing, “Film is dead,” then suggests that he was motivated to work beneath the industry radar due to the way his 1997 “Anna Karenina” was taken away from him and severely recut by the studio. Shot on Sony HDW-700A HD and projected digitally at its Toronto fest preem, pic has such a video look and sound that there’s no way anyone could confuse it with film. It also brandishes many of the visual hallmarks of other works that have been shot this way: jiggly handheld camera moves, non-matching editing, fine-looking exteriors and unlit interiors and night scenes in which the photographic subjects are murky and indistinct.
Working again from Tolstoy, this time from the long 1886 short story “The Death of Ivan Illyich,” which the director adapted with producer/co-star Lisa Enos, Rose establishes his borderline-pretentious tone at the outset, setting beautiful images of a quiet Los Angeles awakening to the strains of “Tristan and Isolde.” Although other source music intrudes from time to time, it is Wagner’s wrenching, swelling theme of death and loss that dominates the picture, and there could scarcely be a greater contrast between the music’s timeless profundity and the petty but all-consuming preoccupation of the story’s self-important characters, who are predominantly agents.
At a morning meeting at the Media Talent Agency, the assembled suits are told that their superstar colleague Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) has just died. Without even digesting the news, the vipers begin speculating about a likely drug overdose (the announced cause of death is cancer), and one of them, Barry Oaks (Adam Krentzman), rushes to the home of megastar Don West (Peter Weller), whom Ivan has just signed to the agency, for a little hand-holding.
Twenty-five minutes in, Ivan’s funeral kicks into a flashback of the young hotshot’s final days. At first, Ivan seems like a relatively normal workaholic with a weakness for mood-altering substances but with more than the usual amount of charm and geniality. At the moment, Ivan is concerned with packaging a project with West, whom he doesn’t represent, and young lunatic writer-director Danny McTeague (James Merendino), and coping with his moody, coke-addled girlfriend, Charlotte (Enos).
But just as he scores his coup of wooing West, Ivan is informed that he has lung cancer. Normally, this is not a disease one dies from after a day or two, but never mind — Ivan exacerbates it by doing drugs during a celebratory orgy with West and three obliging babes, and again after an uncomfortable dinner with his father, sister and Charlotte.
If some of this sounds vaguely familiar, industryites will be forgiven for thinking of the late Jay Moloney, who used to be Rose’s agent at CAA. As it happens, Ivan’s indulgent proclivities seem relatively mild by the standards set onscreen in recent years, and the poor guy does want to tell his girlfriend about his ailment, he really does, but she’ll have to wait until two party girls leave his house so he can call her back.
Rose clearly aims to address what he sees as the degradation and loss of the soul in Hollywood’s citizens and, by implication, in the work it produces. Unfortunately, the writing and direction are far from precise and focused enough for the picture to make a genuinely meaningful contribution to the vast cinematic literature on the subject. But Rose is on to something in his dramatization of the way the business’ temporal and superficial concerns cheapen and come close to obliterating deep emotion and genuine tragedy.
Pic’s deep-dish aspirations are partially fulfilled by the use of Wagner’s glorious music, which makes the characters look small indeed, and by Huston’s lead performance, which suggests charm, intelligence and a good heart sadly led astray. Script provides him with no backstory or psychological details to work with, but he conveys a sweetly ingratiating side, along with his bluster and excess, that elicits sympathy for a character ill prepared to deal with weightier matters. Many real-life agents and other behind-the-scenes figures from the biz put in appearances here, but those who are called upon to “act” should keep their day jobs.