The Death & Life of John F. Donovan

The Death & Life of John F. Donovan ★★★★

Let me start this review off with saying that this is my first interaction with a Xavier Dolan film. A few of his other films, particularly MOMMY, have been on my watchlist for a while, but I just never got around to actually watching it. I had read a lot about Dolan’s style prior to watching this film, and I also read a lot about the weird behind the scenes issues, and the cuts made to the film, and the cast that ended up not being in it (looking at you Queen Jessica Chastain), so to say I was intrigued to watch this would be an understatement. That said I totally forgot about this film even existing until I started seeing people online talking about it again.
You can tell that Dolan truly cared about this story, and was trying really hard to make this work. Because there is a passion about this film that you can feel as you are watching it, there is such a connection between the filmmaker and the film that is really present. I appreciate the story a lot, I think a lot of the themes Dolan tasked himself with covering are important, and on their own handled pretty well. But for me, when the film has to connect the two stories together is when this loses itself and becomes really muddled. The entire interview part with older Rupert Turner and Thandie Newton just doesn’t work the way I think Dolan intended it to, because outside of this being the vehicle to tell the entire story, it has no real bearing on the narrative, and those scenes in particular took me out of it.
I enjoy the two separate stories independently. The story of the odd, young boy (Jacob Tremblay) who starts an unlikely friendship with a movie star is a promising story, and then when you blend in the mother-son dramatics with them both wanting to be actors adds the right amount of added drama. Then you have the story about the titular John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), a rising star who is dealing the pitfalls of celebrity, which includes his inability to be who he really is for the sake of publicity and fame has this built in intrigue that has all the makings for a compelling story. And I think if the film structured itself about separating these two for the most part, and using their connection as a reveal, then the film could have had a better impact. And the aforementioned scenes with the interview could have served a more relevant purpose – like having the older Rupert filling in the gaps, filling in some of the more delicate secrets they shared, and then exploring how that relationship shaped him.
To me, it feels like this film got completely butchered after it was filmed (narrative wise, because it really does look beautiful), because the way this film goes about telling its otherwise intriguing story is pretty dull. It’s too straightforward, there are no real emotional moments that make a lasting impact, because the film is so quick to explain them away and overanalyze it for us.
The ensemble is impressive, though a lot of them don’t get the moment to really shine or utilize their talents to their fullest potential. Kit Harrington and Jacob Tremblay have the most to do, and they both deliver pretty solid performances throughout the film. Tremblay is stronger, and has this control over his character that helps keep you interested in his part of the story, and his chemistry with Natalie Portman is really impressive as well. I’m more surprised by Harrington than anything else, his work on Game of Thrones wasn’t that impressive to me, so I was concerned with how he would do outside that world, and while he isn’t perfect he handles himself very well. The supporting ladies of Portman, Susan Sarandon, and Kathy Bates showcase their skill when they can, but the lack of utilization and definition of their characters really is wasteful, because outside of Portman the other two are quite dispensable. Ben Schnetzer (older version of Tremblay’s character) and Newton have a good rapport with each other, but I just don’t really see the need for them to be in the whole film. The standout performance for me (outside of Tremblay) is Michael Gambon in his brief role, but again, just like Bates and Sarandon, he could have easily have been omitted and nothing would have changed with the story.
I think the overall look of the film is really beautiful; there are some really gorgeous dreamlike shots in this that are just beautiful to look at. The scenes with John F. Donovan in the gay club are really wonderful to look at, and have a really otherworldly feel about them. I have been thinking about this movie a lot since watching it, so I guess that is a good thing, but I still can’t help but think that this story was just mishandled. I do want to watch it again, because there are some sequences I don’t think I was paying as close attention too as I should have. But I do hope when this is released on home media, that there is an extended cut of this, which includes the cut characters that Chastain was going to play as well Bella Thorne. And even though, this may not have been perfect, I see what Dolan was trying to accomplish, and I can understand where Dolan was headed, and I am truly looking forward to experiencing his other films.

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