Wednesday, May 13, 2009

DVD Views: Ivansxtc

Ivansxtc *** ½ (2002)
Directed By:
Bernard Rose.
Written By: Bernard Rose & Lisa Enos based on the book The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.Starring: Starring: Danny Huston (Ivan Beckman), Peter Weller (Don West), James Merendino (Danny McTeague), Adam Krentzman (Barry Oaks), Lisa Enos (Charlotte White), Joanne Duckman (Marcia Beckman), Robert Graham (Sid Beckman), Tiffani Thiessen (Marie Stein), Valeria Golino (Constanza Vero), Angela Featherstone (Amanda Hill).

Bernard Rose’s Ivansxtc has had an interesting journey. Inspired by his former agent, Jay Maloney, who was at one point hugely successful, and then the next day he was just gone (fired for using cocaine), Rose decided to make a movie about a Hollywood agent much like Maloney. He took Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich has a template, and updated the story into modern Hollywood. The day the film had it’s first screening – in 1999 – was the day that Maloney’s body was found – suicide. It took another two years before the film would find distribution, and although the film got great reviews, and won awards, after its theatrical run in 2002, it was never really heard from again. Now, almost seven years later, the DVD finally arrives. Rose claims that the Creative Artists Agency, Maloney’s old agency, have blacklisted him, making it almost impossible for him to make another movie. Ironically though, the film is what announced Danny Huston as a major talent – much like his father and sister. It appears that the two have remained close – as last year the completed another modern day Tolstoy adaptation – The Kreutzer Sonata – which, you guessed it, has yet to find distribution. But of all that really has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself – which is excellent. Rose’s film is really a poison pen letter to Hollywood, which attacks the studio system as shallow and excessive.

The movie opens with news of Ivan’s death before we even meet him. The news spreads through the agency quickly, but no one really seems that upset. They are told he died of cancer – but since no one even knew he had cancer, and everyone knew he did a lot of cocaine, everyone assumes that it had something to do with that – and that “cancer” is just a cover story. There are assorted chuckles and jokes made about Ivan in the minutes after his death is announced. His funeral is well attended, but no one seems sad. Two of Ivan’s clients – a writer/director Danny McTeague (James Merendino) and a movie star Don West (Peter Weller), get into an argument as the service is still going on. McTeague wanted to direct his latest screenplay, but West wants someone else. Apparently, this cannot wait until after the funeral.

It’s after Ivan’s body has been cremated that we finally flash back and meet the man himself. The films follows Ivan in the last few days of his life. He goes to the doctor, and gets some routine chest x-rays done – no big deal. He works hard to sell Don West, not yet his client, on the McTeague’s screenplay Weeds, even though he hasn’t read the screenplay, and has been told it is crap. It doesn’t matter – he can get it made easily if West is attached. Then the doctor calls and he goes in to discuss the results. He has lung cancer. It is inoperable. He doesn’t have long to live.

Ivan is the type of person who is never alone and yet always lonely. He is constantly surrounded by people, yet he is close to no one. We see him out with his girlfriend Charlotte (Lisa Enos, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and is Rose’s wife) and talking, but they don’t really share any connection. When the two of them go out with West, neither raises an objection when West wants to snort coke off of Charlotte’s inner thigh. Later Ivan will ask West if he ever slept with his girlfriend, and West asks “What do you care?”, before ordering one of his “escorts” to give Ivan a blow job.

This is Ivan’s life. He is constantly going out and getting high, but no one cares. As long as he lands big clients, and the clients like him, the agency lets him get away with anything. So what if he doesn’t show up to work for a few days, or some lesser clients are pissed because he never returns their phone calls? He lands the big fish, and that’s all that matters.

Ivan tries to connect with others in the movie but he can’t. He talks to a shrink, in which he is honest, but doesn’t really get anything from it. He goes to dinner with his dad and sister, and brings Charlotte along, but the dinner quickly devolves into a fight, when his sister says he’s hooked up with another “coked out whore”, right in front of Charlotte who is humiliated. Later that night, she storms out on him, and calls two escorts to come over. Again, he tries to connect with them, but they don’t care. You can pay someone to fuck you, but you can’t pay them to make them give a shit about you. Ivan, it seems, is all alone.

The movie is shot on digital video, and it’s interesting to see because we realize just how far digital has come in the decade since the movie was shot. In the past two years, we’ve seen digital movies of such high quality that you likely cannot tell the difference between them and film (David Fincher’s Zodiac and Steven Soderbergh’s Che come to mind). But in the late 1990s when this was shot, that wasn’t the case. But strangely, the cheap look of the film works. Some of the shots in the movie are still quite beautiful, and even if most are merely functional, they work. Shot in cinema verite style, the movie immerses us Ivan’s world. The scenes of excess partying look like they could have been pulled off of Youtube, but it’s all appropriate. It works, for this movie anyway.

The film is anchored by Danny Huston’s terrific lead performance as Ivan. He is all smiles and brash confidence when he is around anyone else. Privately, he is a mess. Huston does a great job convincing us that he is an agent, that he is dying, and he is scared and lonely, even as he’s putting up a front. Peter Weller does a great job as the movie star with a swollen head who simply doesn’t give a crap about anyone, Enos is good as the girlfriend, who we sense, somewhere in there, actually does care about Ivan. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Either they are non professional actors, or else they just aren’t very good actors, but either way, they never really sell us on their performances. But it hardly matters, but Huston sells us on his, and he’s the key to the movie.

I’m glad that the movie is finally available on DVD, and hope it finds the audience it deserves. I have been waiting for seven years to see the movie, and I can say this – it was worth the wait.

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