Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: "Whiplash"

Director: Damien Chazelle
Runtime: 106 minutes

The title may be Whiplash, but thankfully the actual film is much more emotionally consistent. Director Damien Chazelle's second feature, adapted from his own short, features solid acting and exhaustingly passionate musical performances. Yet for all of the fury taken out on various instruments, Whiplash's emotional thrills hardly linger. Chazelle's direction is confident, never allowing intense scenes to boil over into laughable melodrama, but his protagonist is too simply defined to be much more than an audience surrogate. 

When it comes to specific performance skills, actors often undergo rigorous training to look the part on screen. Unfortunately, filmmakers (and even the actors) forget that in the grand scheme of things, learning skills is as superficial as a costume. It's rare for an actor to develop a skill for a film and find ways of transferring emotion into said skill on camera. So for all of the literal blood, sweat, and tears that Miles Teller puts into his role as determined music Andrew, it's difficult to locate significant character building across the film's 100 minutes. Teller drums and drums until his fingers bleed and his body is soaked with sweat. It's impressive stuff to watch, but rarely does it feel like more than just an intense musical performance.

That's not to say that Teller isn't pouring his heart into his musical performances. The pain and utter exhaustion on his face during marathon-length practice sessions is powerful stuff. However, what little else we get about Andrew outside of his drive to be "one of the greats" of Jazz is pretty slim. He wants it. He wants it even if it means enduring the semi-insane teaching style of Prof. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher never wants to give out compliments, as he's under the impression that they give performers an excuse to slack off or go soft. Even then, his classroom behavior sometimes boggles the mind.

Simmons, at least, is working with material that requires some emotional dexterity. For all of Fletcher's outbursts (verbal and physical), Simmons and Chazelle never turn him into someone entirely devoid of humanity or compassion. Fletcher demands perfection of his Jazz band even though it's impossible to really reach his standards, and Simmons keeps that hollow perfectionism under fierce control. 

Yet the further the film moves outside of the classroom and/or the stage, the less engrossing Whiplash becomes. A scene where Andrew listens to family friends praise their star athlete son is almost insultingly simple. Surprise, people are congratulating athletics and model UN as worthwhile accomplishments, but woe to those artsy types. Aren't they such heroic underdogs for pursuing things like music (I mean, really, who listens to music these days?). At least Chazelle caps off the bit with a nice stab of humor, but even so, the entire sequence is cliched and lacking in anything fresh or new.

Beyond the woe-to-the-artists stuff, Chazelle also has an unsatisfying way of navigating the issues that stem from his set-up. Andrew's determination is so all consuming that he's not a particularly interesting character for Teller to sink in to. He wants to be the best. He cuts things off with a potential romantic interest because he knows his dedication to practicing will drive them away. He goes through minor triumphs and staggering defeats. It doesn't exactly prompt a shrug, but it does make Andrew's struggle less involving than it ought to be. The story's conclusion gets the pulse up for an exasperating amount of time, but once those credits start rolling, there's not much to care about.

With its character-based deficiencies, all that's really left to prop up Whiplash are the scenes involving Prof. Fletcher's practice sessions and Andrew's own Herculean efforts to meet his tyrannical leader's expectations. Chazelle's directing during these scenes mark the film's high points, tapping into the furious effort that Andrew's drummer position requires. The sequences are as bursting with life as the music being played, and that surface level adrenaline rush can be thrilling to behold. All of that raucous energy holds your attention through every second, and yet it all fades too quickly without a fully developed protagonist to investigate and hopefully root for. The pulse quickens, yet the heart remains almost completely unmoved. 

Grade: B-/C+

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