Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: "The Two Faces of January"

Director: Hossein Amini
Runtime: 96 minutes

When source material is too highly regarded and too indebted to the specifics of prose, cinematic translations often stumble. For Patricia Highsmith, however, that's often not been the case. Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley are both exemplary adaptations that retain the voice of the original text, all while standing as separate cinematic entities. Because Highsmith's stories have translated to the big screen with such stellar results before, however, it's disappointing that the latest adaptation of her work is such a middling piece of filmmaking. Making his feature debut as a director, Oscar-nominated writer Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) has turned Highsmith's The Two Faces of January into a moderately engaging, yet wholly unmemorable film that plays like a half-hearted attempt capturing what made something like Ripley work so well. 

The Ripley-esque figure (minus the capability for downright evil) this time around is American ex-pat Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a tour guide in Greece who has a habit of getting extra money out of gullible tourists. When Rydal spots wealthy-looking couple Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), he immediately sets them as his next mark, and starts encroaching on their carefree vacation. In part, Rydal is drawn to the MacFarlands because Chester reminds the former of his recently-deceased father. Yet the MacFarlands have ulterior motives of their own, and one accidental death later the trio find themselves bound by a dark secret. 

There are so many themes that Ripley and January share, yet there's a sizable gulf in quality when it comes to the actual results. Isaac has what should be a juicy role, yet his mild duplicity and parental estrangement issues are quickly thrown overboard in favor of getting the plot moving. The film's focus is in constant flux, leaving neither Rydal nor Chester particularly well-rounded by the time everything wraps up in the admittedly tense finale. To their credit, Isaac and Mortensen play off of each other well, although the latter sometimes struggles to convince as the sort of man who's not terribly sharp on his feet. Mortensen has a reserved intensity about him, and it doesn't lend itself well to a character who's occasionally written as, as one minor character puts it, "without a clue." Isaac, meanwhile, does his best to create a convincing portrait of a man being pulled in multiple directions, yet he's ultimately unable to overcome the crushingly superficial and unfocused writing. 

As for Colette/Dunst, she's left in a majorly watered-down version of Gwyneth Paltrow's Ripley character, with hardly any legitimately compelling material left over for her to work with. At the outset, it seems like Dunst is either miscast or simply not trying. The actress does prove her commitment in her one big emotional scene, revealing that the rest of her material gave her almost nothing to do.  

Though Amini has proven himself as a capable screenwriter, his first stab at directing finds him putting not enough effort into, well, the writing. Character-building is abandoned in favor of either moving the plot forward or spilling exposition. This leaves little room for a little thing called subtext, meaning that the underlying issues are hammered home in the exciting, yet far too hurried final act. Amini has done well when it comes to the visual and sonic aspects of directing, yet his handling of actors and underlying emotions tends to be rather wobbly. 

Foundational flaws aside, Amini has at least assembled a handsome looking production. Though the visuals have limited variety, January does for Athens and Crete what Ripley did for San Remo and Venice. Ancient ruins, seaside towns, and rugged coastal terrain all contribute nicely to the atmosphere (certainly more than the writing), with the photography, art direction, and costume design all working perfectly in sync. Composer Alberto Iglesias contributes an effective score to help move things along, even though some of it sounds like rejects from his work on Almodovar's Broken Embraces

So even though The Two Faces of January isn't a complete failure as far as Highsmith adaptations go, it's still a rather underwhelming effort, despite a handful of strengths. Yet in focusing so heavily on his duties as a director, Amini has left his debut without much emotional heft. Minor plot developments take precedence over authentic relationships among characters, robbing the narrative of a consistent sense of danger. January looks and sounds the part, and it never drags, but it's also too light on its feet to leave its own mark. 

Grade: B-/C+

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