Starring Robert Pattinson. Rated PG.
Based on true events, Life chronicles the professional relationship between actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson). Set in 1955—only a few months before Dean’s untimely death at 24—it centres on a series of candid photographs Stock took for Life magazine, including the iconic portrait of a slouching Dean walking through Times Square in the rain.
There’s not much to go on here. Stock is a young photographer convinced that the largely unknown Dean is going to make it big. The moody actor, on the cusp of getting his breakthrough role in Rebel Without a Cause, strings Stock along as a way of dodging his publicity commitments for East of Eden. We are supposed to be intrigued by their growing friendship. But Pattinson’s Stock is a bitter, uptight young man who can’t relax into the moment unless he’s holding a camera. As for Dean, we’re left wondering why everybody thinks he’s so special.
In trying to convince his agent that the actor is a worthy subject, Stock says: “There’s a kind of awkwardness. A purity that you can’t fake.” True enough, which is why DeHaan’s performance comes across as more awkward than pure. Despite one or two absorbing moments, he lacks Dean’s restless edge. The shy mumble is gone, the lean sense of melancholy replaced by a too-round face and a little-boy voice that seems oddly out of character.
Director Anton Corbijn attempts to pump some much-needed energy into the proceedings with stiff cameos featuring actors impersonating the likes of Natalie Wood, Eartha Kitt, and Julie Harris. Their appearances are mercifully short, which is more than you can say about Ben Kingsley’s terminally greasy portrayal of studio head Jack Warner.
What little credibility the film manages to build is totally lost once we see actual photographs of the real Dean. A few classic images are all it takes to appreciate his undeniable presence. The rest just seems awkward. And there’s nothing cool about that.