While experiencing the technical craftsmanship of director Ron Howard's Rush, with Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle working at peak ability and the sound effects and editing exquisite throughout, I was frequently tempted to say, "Wow." Too bad that the film's overall presentation more often had me asking, "Why?"
Given the real-life narrative behind competitive Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda - whose combative rivalry reached its crescendo in the final seconds of 1976's Japanese Grand Prix - it's easy to see what drew Howard to the material, especially when you consider that Howard's feature-film debut was a feisty little 1977 release titled Grand Theft Auto. And it's certainly easy to glean the initial appeal for screenwriter Peter Morgan, who, in his scripts for The Deal and Frost/Nixon, has shown special affinity for culturally significant, mano-a-mano battles between warring media sensations. Yet for all of Rush's '70s vérité, the undeniable thrill of its racetrack sequences, and the engaging portrayals by Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda, I still left Howard's latest wondering what, exactly, its point was. Even routine Wikipedia investigations into Hunt's and Lauda's lives yield more legitimate suspense and (sorry) drive than you'll find in Howard's and Morgan's telling of their combined tale, which really amounts to little more than the story of two assholes who, once tragedy strikes, become slightly less noxious assholes.
Hemsworth's Hunt is the tall, blond, devil-may-care racer as notorious for his death-defying fearlessness on the track as he is for his seduction techniques; as one character describes him here, Hunt is "a good driver, but an immortal f---." (Not that we'd expect anything less of Thor.) Brühl's Lauda - short, brunette, and with an unfortunate overbite that earned him the nickname "The Rat" - is the brooding, sober, by-the-book professional forever jealous of Hunt's ease in charming the press and fans alike. And being a movie by Ron Howard, that Oscar-crowned prince of unthreatening middlebrow entertainment, we enter (or should enter) Rush pretty much knowing what to expect: that the men's mutual distrust and loathing will gradually morph into a reserved respect, and maybe even a testy friendship, which reveals itself right before the end credits roll.
That happens all right, but the surprise of Rush - and it's not the happiest of surprises - is that, dramatically speaking, that's pretty much all that happens. This isn't to say that Howard's and Morgan's effort, which covers the years 1970 through 1976, entirely bypasses its leading characters' history; we're shown snippets from numerous races and the drivers' difficulties with sponsors and wives - Hunt's spouse, played here by Olivia Wilde, famously left her husband for actor Richard Burton - and Lauda's horrific Nürburgring accident that nearly cost him his life. (Howard's direction is never more tough-minded than in this latter scene, and in the scenes of Lauda's consequent hospitalization. Prepare to close your eyes, and ears, during the vacuuming of Lauda's lungs.) Yet even with all these goings-on, the movie is strangely airless. Hardly an event passes in Hunt's life in which we're not shown its effect on Lauda, and vice versa, and the two begin to seem so single-minded in the propagation of their rivalry that you start to wonder if anything, at all, enters their brains beyond besting one another on the track. Hunt hates Lauda, Lauda hates Hunt, and on and on it goes in Howard's and Morgan's two-hour imagining of their relationship; you half expect (and half hope) the Formula One stars to launch into a split-screen rendition of Annie Get Your Gun's "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better."
Despite the leads' mutually impressive work, the only times when Rush truly comes to life are in its racing sequences, and thankfully, they're so stunningly rendered that they alleviate many of your gripes about the rest of the picture. Howard brings us so close to the drivers' faces that you can practically count the beads of sweat dripping from Hunt's and Lauda's foreheads, and the first-person shots of their vehicles careening through impossibly challenging conditions are terrifically satisfying; at its intoxicating, nerve-jangling best, Howard's offering is like a zippy 3D movie without the hue-dulling irritation of the eyewear. In both visual and aural regards, Rush is never less than first-rate, and it's an easy film to sit through. I just wish, given the disappointment of its script and mostly blah staging, this Formula One outing didn't reek quite so strongly of formula.
This past weekend, I saw four movies at the cineplex. Between Thursday and Saturday, I also saw four movies on Netflix. Or, rather, I saw one movie on Netflix four times. My new streaming obsession is Room 237, and I'd like to think that director Rodney Ascher would delight in my continued revisits to his documentary, because the film (which had an art-house release this past spring) is all about obsession - namely, the obsession that certain Stanley Kubrick-philes share for the director's 1980 horror film The Shining. A visualized deconstruction of possible hidden meanings, secret jokes, and borderline-nutty themes running throughout Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation, Room 237 features five voice-over "experts" sharing their fascinating, loopy, and sometimes startlingly lucid notions as to what The Shining really "means." (It's a Holocaust parable! No, it's an elegy for slaughtered Native Americans! No, it's an apology for moon-landing fakery!) And in doing so, they and Ascher have collectively fashioned not only one of the most sensationally entertaining works of 2013, but, with the possible exception of This Is the End, perhaps the most ticklishly meta movie of the year. It's all about fan theories developed through endless repeat viewings of The Shining, and if you, too, have found yourself inordinately haunted by Kubrick's singular masterpiece, it consequently makes you want to watch endless repeat viewings of Room 237.
With practically an entire feature's worth of clips from The Shining interspersed with additional, amusing nods to other films and Kubrick's oeuvre in particular - Eyes Wide Shut, as perhaps it should, gets the snarkiest attention - Ascher's film is beautifully yet impishly assembled, and its director treats his off-screen collaborators with a delicate blend of respect and cheek. (At one point, the on-screen action is paused so that one of the interviewees - obviously speaking with Ascher on the phone - can tend to a crying child heard in the background.) But as perfectly befits a doc on one of Kubrick's titles, it's Room 237's minutiae that really stick with you, be it the Overlook Hotel's "impossible window," or the continuity errors that couldn't possibly be continuity errors, or the realization that Jack Nicholson, on the day of his character's job interview, is seen in the hotel lobby reading Playgirl magazine. Have fun picking your favorite example, but for my money, and with plenty more viewings to come, the movie's most priceless moment lands when one of our conspiracy-minded narrators (an Apollo 11 junkie) references the hotel key reading "ROOM No. 237," and argues that only two words can be spelled with those capitalized letters: "moon" and "room." Conveniently forgetting "nor" and "norm" and "moor." And, of course, "moron."