That Colson Baker can act is no revelation. The rap-rocker, better known to his legions of fans as Machine Gun Kelly, has already held his own in a dozen or so roles for film and TV, demonstrating a scuzzy on-screen charisma within admittedly limited boundaries. His canny casting as Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in the Netflix biopic “The Dirt” paid off, so it’s not surprising to see him return to the rockstar-as-rockstar well in the significantly artsier “Taurus.” This time, however, he makes a rather more personal investment — not just starring, but serving as executive producer, composer and script consultant — in a project modeled on, if not his own life, certainly his own celebrity aura and sound.
The good news is that he can still act, serving director Tim Sutton’s unpleasant but smokily atmospheric descent into Hollywood Hades with solemn commitment and a lurching air of physical and spiritual ruin — this is about as valiantly unflattering as vanity projects get. The bad news is that the wispily tragic character of “Cole,” his alienated, self-destructive but wildly popular alter ego, hardly seems worth Baker’s extensive efforts. He’s certainly an inadequate focal point for a stylish but very slender film that brings nothing fresh to the curious subgenre of fictionalized but semi-reflective music-star portraits, from “Purple Rain” to “8 Mile.” In 2022, it turns out, fame is still hell, the machine is still out to destroy you, and the drugs still don’t work.
Sutton, a distinctive cultivator of mood with a recurring affinity for America’s most soured social underbelly, previously worked with Baker on last year’s western “The Last Son,” and it’s not hard to see why the two are drawn to each other. The jagged, slippery chill of Sutton’s filmmaking complements the discordant malaise of the rapper’s music (which fills the soundtrack here, with cuts both pre-existing and bespoke) rather well. But with Cole, their joint creation, something of a void at the center of the film, a less expected (and certainly less celebrated) figure emerges as its heart: superb rising star Maddie Hasson (most recently seen in “Malignant”) as Cole’s beleaguered, mistreated but oddly devoted personal assistant Ilana.
Indeed, “Taurus” is most interesting as a study of the dysfunctionally toxic but Hollywood-standard relationship between star and aide, with Ilana serving simultaneously as a surrogate mother, sister and babysitter to the incapable Cole — who, even when not high on a veritable cornucopia of substances, has the instincts and attention span of a small toddler. We get little of her backstory, which is both frustrating — every time Ilana drops Cole off at his sheeny, sterile modernist mansion in the Hollywood Hills, we wish we were following her for the rest of the evening instead — and probably appropriate. Whatever life and identity she had before appears to have been subsumed by the unending neediness of her boss and ward.
And yet she loves him, in an exhausted, despairing way that ebbs and flows across the film’s week-long timeline, as she ferries the generally remote, uncompliant Cole between recording studio sessions, interviews, brand ambassador meetings, barroom binges and occasional, detached parenting appointments with his 10-year-old daughter Rosie (Avery Essex). As the first point of blame by his sharkish manager (Scoot McNairy) when Cole fails or flounders, she does her level best to keep him, if not sober, at least compos mentis. But she can’t watch him every hour, and what he gets up to with his drug dealer pal (Ruby Rose) and various interchangeable lovers is his business — at least until Ilana is faced with the cleanup (of both Cole and his vomit-encrusted clothes) the next morning.
As an evocation of daily life and mental deterioration in the mirrored, echoing vacuum of super-celebrity, “Taurus” is at least reasonably convincing. In that regard, it’s abetted not just by Baker’s first-hand conviction in the lead, but the expensive, impermeable surfaces of Francesca Palombo’s production design, and the suffocating neon fog of John Brawley’s lensing, which occasionally resorts to vertiginous trickery (as in the 180-degree axis tilts that bookend the film) to suggest Cole’s skewed, removed reality.
But it’s all heading in one grimly inevitable direction, which wouldn’t be a problem if Cole’s characterization here hinted at any distinctive personality or inner poetry being terminally wasted. As it is, he remains a demanding cipher from beginning to end, rendering the film more nihilistic than melancholic. A few stunt-y diversions do little to enliven proceedings. There’s a sparse, voiceless cameo from Baker’s real-life fiancée Megan Fox as Cole’s seething ex, which mostly amuses by virtue of its sheer anticlimax. Elsewhere, an initially cryptic subplot detailing a suburban tragedy involving one of Cole’s fans is in luridly bad taste — ultimately framed only in terms of how it affects the star himself.
But it’s Maddie’s growing fatigue and worn-to-a-nub patience that hit us at the film’s lowest points, with Hasson’s peppery, empathetic performance serving as the audience’s lifeline amid all this squandered stainless-steel privilege. A brief, exquisite late shot of her alone in her car, face crushed and makeup-streaked as she comfort-eats a burger, is worth more than all Cole’s posturing self-pity in the course of this ambiguously sympathetic film. Perhaps it’s meant to be that way: Being a celebrity is hard, “Taurus” insists, but staying human is no easier.