The Death & Life of John F. Donovan

A bafflingly unpleasant misfire that annoyed me from the first minute until it’s final, strained, laborious last minute. A movie so obsessed with the austerity of its own images and self-importance that it forgets to be engaging or compelling in any aspect whatsoever. I am loathed to call a film ‘pretentious’ because of the flagrant disregard with which that word is thrown around in film criticism, but when Dolan’s script has his primary character analog go off on a monologue insisting how important the story he’s telling (the movie) is, and how it’s ACTUALLY about homophobia and loads of other nonsense the movie doesn’t even attempt to indulge in whatsoever, I am forced to play my hand. It’s as if Dolan thinks he can use queer sexuality and desire to represent his unique vision thereof as an excuse to both bore the absolute shit out of me and as a cover-all defense of his lazy storytelling. He’s essentially constructing a narrative that is about so many half measures it ends up being about absolutely fucking nothing, let alone the things it INSISTS it’s about. It reminded me of ‘Life Itself’ or even a bizzaro-world ‘Magnolia’ except without the more offensive qualities of the former, or the quality of the latter. It’s a movie that pretends to act in sincerity, to be behind this curtain of humility and self-awareness, in order to accomplish nothing in its exhaustive runtime. 

Where to even begin about the things that annoyed me? The needle-drops? Oh boy they are JUST as awful, saccharin, and blunt as you’ve heard. The worst of which being the inclusion of ‘Stand By Me’ which is a front runner for the worst scene I’ve seen in a film all year. The aggressive abundance of close-ups making the entire affair feel claustrophobic even when it isn’t thematically appropriate. It shifts between styles and techniques with no rhyme or reason and executes most of those ideas inconsistently, at best. The acting, from a cast that consists mostly of people who have given wonderful performances in the past, is universally unremarkable at its highest points. Tremblay is genuinely horrible here, but I would attribute that more to the character’s writing and Dolan’s absolutely bug-nutty direction that I imagine gave him very little to work with. It’s as if the cast were all kept locked up in basement for decades, were finally let out, and forced to act like real people again only with a faint idea of what ‘real’ is. It all plays like a parodic highlight reel of tropes in his other films, and it doesn’t take long to feel torturous as the narrative lazily whips you back and forth between its different timelines with reckless abandon, making it impossible to latch onto anything. Good GOD I was trying, looking for anything to latch onto, and it gave me nothing. 

It’s disjointed but never in a way that compliments the material. It’s structure is schizophrenic and actively handicaps almost EVERY attempt at a dramatic moment at every single turn to the point of parodic absurdity. You can make movies that are messy work, but this is simply not one such case, because any effort here is only invested in the construction of Dolan’s images, several of which that are beautiful and evocative, but ultimately ring hollow as they come and go without a drop of weight or intent. It’s simply a movie where scenes come and go where you’re either baffled by their pointlessness, or waiting desperately for them to end because of how confused and choppy it all felt, which is a shame, because there DEFINITELY is a good movie buried in here, it’s just that Dolan took that story and put it in a fucking blender and hit ‘frappe’. A more grounded structure could alleviate some of my issues, but honestly, it could only do so much good. I can only watch so many scenes of these lifeless husks I know almost nothing about walk around, contributing only to the film’s aesthetic, as a saccharin yet meaningless monologue drones over them to explain the plot to me because Dolan has no interest in conveying anything NOT in the laziest way possible. I have NEVER seen such a rote, predictable, cliched narrative lost within such an impenetrable structure and presentation, it’s a living contradiction as to how it’s so cliched yet so utterly manic in its decision making. 

Not the worst movie I’ve seen all year, but perhaps the most annoying. As well as the biggest waste of incredible talent, from both Dolan and the cast. 

It’s hard to find any more words or thoughts rambling about in my head right now, as I’m still just sort of in a state of shock about how such a mediocre movie is simultaneously such a god-fucking-awful one too. I may not have heaped the rapturous praise on ‘Mommy’ that others have, even if I do like it a fair bit, but even then, that movie was a perfect example of Dolan doing just fine and then shooting himself in the foot in the third act, whereas this film is just a continuous symphony of never-ending foot-shooting. 

To paraphrase a review I once made on here ‘this movie has more needle-drops than a heroin addict with Parkinsons’. I feel that joke was warranted because it’s approximately as tasteless as the film’s vain attempts to inject vitality and meaning with its song choices and overwrought monologues trying to make appeals to its nonexistent pathos. People don’t talk like people in this, they talk like ideologues, but ideologues that represent and mean nothing other than occasional flowery prose strung together by vague nothingness. It all plays and feels like a half-remembered, drunken recount of a better movie, being told by someone you already don’t like when they’re sober. 

Fucking hell.

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