It’s telling that Haynes doesn’t show you the early Dylan, i.e., Robert Zimmerman, which would require him to probe a little more deeply than Dylan’s teenage James Dean obsession and brief passion for Rimbaud. Last week, NPR’s “Fresh Air” re-aired a 1991 interview with Norman Mailer, in which Terry Gross asked why he’d never written about his Jewishness. “It hasn’t been a major theme, but it has informed every sentence I’ve written,” said Mailer. He then paraphrased Norman Podhoretz to the effect that there are two kinds of Jew, the traditionally observant, for whom the Jewish identity is paramount, and a Jew like Mailer, who “became the mirror of the time and aped the manners of all the people who are not Jewish—didn’t copy them literally but became so sensitive to the manners of those who were not Jewish that he might end up knowing more about them than they did.”
That’s the piece that’s missing from I’m Not There—and I say that not out of ethnic pride but out of a sense that this transfixing, bewildering, exhausting movie leaves you feeling hungry for something that is there. Haynes’s anti-psychological view of Dylan isn’t so far from Peter Shaffer’s vapid, braying Mozart, whose music has nothing to do with him—it’s piped in from God. It’s a view that both overexalts Dylan and belittles him without coming close to illuminating his mystery.
Pardon my actor-speak, but Frank Langella has grown into his apparatus. When he was a young leading man, his deep voice could seem too plangent, his movements too deliberate; his gravity could suggest, rightly or wrongly, self-worship. (Those things made him an excellent Dracula, however.) But in the last decade, as William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck and Nixon (onstage in Frost/Nixon), he was better than good; he was perfect. As Leonard Schiller, a forgotten literary novelist in Starting Out in the Evening, he is better than that. This is what great screen acting is about. It’s not a flamboyant performance. Langella is never more expressive than when he’s immobile, unsmiling, staring out from a body that has become too lumbering a vessel for his churning brain. The movie is about Schiller’s relationship with two women: his protective daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), who shares her anxieties about growing old without having a child, and Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a vivid and vivaciously pretty graduate student who says his first novel changed her life and wants to write a master’s thesis that will spur his rediscovery. She seems to want something else, too, but Schiller knows he’s a decade too old for the game she wants to play.
Upper West Side intellectuals, people who talk like writers, a May-December romance: The movie has the trappings of something insufferable. It isn’t, though. It’s marvelous. It’s unapologetically literary, minus the contempt of Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. These are people who use books to live fuller lives. Andrew Wagner (who co-wrote the script with Fred Parnes) made a lovely family road documentary called The Talent Given Us and brings the same wry but affectionate eye to the characters here. Every time the movie threatens to evolve into melodrama, Wagner pulls back—but the actors show, in their eyes, the passion that could lead to melodrama. Taylor—a superb actress in a comeback role—is wary without being a drag; Ambrose is neither totally ingenuous nor totally calculating but an irreducible mixture of both. Above all is Langella, achingly vulnerable under layers of flesh. In one scene, alone, he eats peanut butter intensely, thoughtfully, and nothing he could do as Hamlet would seem deeper or more poetic.
I’m still recovering from Frank Darabont’s The Mist, a Stephen King adaptation with CGI beasties, derivative setups, and patches of clunky dialogue that somehow transcends the horror genre and becomes a cry of despair, both primal and of this moment. I’ll write about it next week. Be very afraid.