I suppose a fall from grace for Xavier Dolan was inevitable. Quebec’s golden boy of cinema has cranked out seven features in the last decade, becoming a Cannes darling in the process, and all before turning 30 years old. At the same time, his intermittent arrogance at his own rising talent has gradually been rubbing audiences and critics the wrong way. It’s almost as if we were all waiting for him fail. Unfortunately for him, it had to happen while surrounded by a bevy of Hollywood actors clamouring to work with him.
So after being pilloried at its TIFF premiere almost exactly one year ago, Dolan’s long-awaited English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, finally sneaks into theatres during the dog days of summer. It is a bad movie, sometimes spectacularly so, and in a way that exposes the limitations of Dolan’s filmmaking. As an ardent admirer of his entire body of work, even the divisive It’s Only the End of the World, it was disheartening to see how quickly his shtick gets old just over the course of a single two-hour film.
Working with fellow Montreal-raised filmmaker Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky, Good Neighbours) on the screenplay, John F. Donovan certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, crosscutting between three different timelines and multiple characters over the course of its runtime. In the first, Kit Harrington is the titular character, a fast-rising American television star circa 2007, who struggles to adapt to his newfound fame in the face of unresolved family problems, substance abuse issues and his own closeted sexuality. Meanwhile, in London, England, a young boy and aspiring actor named Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay) is Donovan’s biggest fan and has been exchanging letters with the star for years, all under the nose of his harried single mom (Natalie Portman). Coming from a broken family situation himself, Rupert takes solace in the letters, helping him get through the daily bullying and humiliations he has to endure at school. And then in a third framing narrative set in the present day, a grown-up Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) is interviewed by a skeptical reporter (Thandie Newton) about the book he’s written about his childhood correspondence with Donovan, who suddenly died soon after from a drug overdose.
All of the hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from a Dolan film are on full display here, from the strained mother-son relationships to the internal struggle with sexuality to the incessant re-purposing of ubiquitous pop music hits. And yet, for the first time in his career, all of this just feels like a pose, as if he’s just showing off his style for a larger audience without any of the emotional underpinnings that have always justified it. The whole endeavour comes across a strangely hollow affair, giving us no reason to care about the conventional arcs of any of the characters.
In a strange moment midway through the film, Dolan almost seems to be somewhat aware of this. As the grown-up Rupert continues to face condescension about his “first world problems” story from his interviewer, who is typically off covering war zones and environmental crises and any other manner of more important news items, he blasts her for thinking that his tale is any less relevant. Ranting about how his correspondence with Donovan and the insights it brought him is a story about our current problematic socio-political culture that has the power to change people’s thinking, you get the sense that we’re just hearing Dolan speak to us directly, safeguarding himself against any criticisms of vapidity that could be leveled against him.
Somehow this ridiculous speech gets through to the hardened interviewer, causing her to do an immediate 180 and become absorbed in Rupert’s tale the rest of the way. But for all of Rupert’s (and consequently, Dolan’s) insistence that he’s telling this grand story, it just continues through the same story beats that we’ve seen in any number of films about the hardships of fame, culminating in a hasty climax that aims for the thrilling send-offs that we saw in Mommy or Laurence Anyways, but comes up very, very short. When The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” comes on to score the ridiculous final scene, it’s hard to suppress your laughter. Just because he made Oasis’s “Wonderwall” cool again for a second doesn’t mean it’ll work for any middle-of-the-road ‘90s jam. And anyways, Cruel Intentions already did the “Bittersweet Symphony” fade-out 20 years ago, okay?
Much has been made about what got left on the cutting room floor for this film as well, including Jessica Chastain’s part as a villainous reporter type which was shot but then completely excised for pacing reasons. Reports say that the initial cut was a good four hours long and to that end, the final result of John F. Donovan does seem kind of truncated. Several other famous faces pop up here and there for quick scenes that feel disconnected from the larger narrative and emotional moments crop up suddenly out of nowhere as if the scenes leading up to them were left behind. Maybe there’s a better film lurking somewhere in the extended version of John F. Donovan. There’s just not enough of interest going on as it stands, however, for anyone to fathomably care enough to find out.
Ultimately, the disaster of John F. Donovan has already pretty much faded into the past for Dolan. His new film, the intimate French-language Matthias & Maxime, premiered earlier this year at Cannes to more positive reviews. It seems like a return to the early aesthetics of I Killed My Mother or Heartbeats, with Dolan stepping in front of the camera again in his own film for the first time since Tom at the Farm.
This seems like it’s for the best. If any grand message can be gleaned from John F. Donovan, it’s that Dolan himself needs to step out of the limelight a bit.
- Release Date: 8/23/2019