WHIPLASH (2014, Damien Chazelle)
Some day filmmakers will figure out how to explore what a movie is about without having its characters sit around and tell you exactly what it’s about. And what’s most frustrating about WHIPLASH is that even with these heavy-handed monologues and contrived story moments dedicated to declaring its themes, it doesn’t even really tackle what it’s about in an interesting way.
Chazelle’s sophomore feature asks the question, “Is artistic success worth the cost of achieving it?” And it asks that by presenting a black-and-white relationship between a tough-love, drill-sergeant teacher and a driven, naturally gifted student. But it doesn’t really care about what makes this issue complex. Does it depend on what kind of art you’re succeeding at? Does it depend on the definition of success? Does it depend on the gradations of the sacrifices you make to get there? How many exceptions are there to this rule? None of that really matters to WHIPLASH. It dismisses the subjectivity of musicianship in one sentence, and only presents one hard-ass teacher who drives former students to suicide. Even more annoying are all the devices Chazelle contrives to get there: a love interest who exists solely to give the lead his regrets, a father painted expressly as the opposite of the teacher but without much of his own agency, and a series of ridiculous incidents geared to over-dramatize the student’s rise-and-fall hardships.
I might have excused all this (and I still slightly do) if Chazelle was an expert director. Indeed, I like how in the jazzier moments he angles the camera askew and jumps the 180 at bizarre times, while in the steadier moments centers his framing in a more symmetrical fashion. But he runs out of tricks early on, and just uses them over and over. Shots from under the drum kit, close-ups of blood on the snare, sweat on the cymbal, and slo-mo shots of grimaces and scabs. He’s also not gifted with actors. Miles Teller is a brilliant comic presence, but here he is forced to abandon his sense of humor entirely and coast on his still-considerable affability and vulnerability. J.K. Simmons has been a fierce villain on OZ, and done terrific comedy in SPIDER-MAN and BURN AFTER READING. But his R. Lee Ermey turn here is overly mannered and just too actor-y to me. Never frighteningly raw. But the biggest letdown for me about WHIPLASH is that for a film about jazz, it refuses to improvise at all.