Three stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, violence, drug use and pervasive profanity
By Derrick Bang
We’ve recently been blessed with a couple of show-stopping soliloquies.
Matthew McConaughey’s coked-out stock-whisperer scene, as he describes the concept behind fugazi to a still-naïve Leonardo DiCaprio, is by far the best part of the otherwise bloated Wolf of Wall Street. It’s acting genius on McConaughey’s part; he’s positively electrifying.
The same can be said of Jude Law’s opening monologue in Dom Hemingway, as he waxes rhapsodic about the most cherished part of his male anatomy. It’s a jaw-dropping introduction to this film’s title character, with Law going on an on and on, never pausing for breath, in a single dynamite take for cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who just lets the camera roll. Law builds to a ferocity that would have riveted 16th century, standing-room patrons at the Globe Theatre ... although, it must be admitted, the profanity present in this lust-laden oration would have scorched the earth for miles around.
Law builds to a furious, fulminating, saliva-laden climax — in more ways than one — and leaves us utterly breathless.
I’d love to say the rest of writer/director Richard Shepard’s film lives up to this prologue. Sadly, not the case.
Although he’d been busy for well over a decade earlier, Shepard came to everybody’s attention with 2005’s The Matador, a marvelously stylish crime noir comedy. Shepard’s cheeky script notwithstanding, that film got much of its juice from the way star Pierce Brosnan — normally regarded as refined, genteel and immaculately turned out — went down and dirty as a world-weary assassin for hire.
Brosnan’s scruffy stomp through a hotel lobby, clad only in his skivvies, may have been that year’s best single movie scene.
Shepard clearly tries for the same vibe with Dom Hemingway, but his unfocused script can’t settle on a particular mood. Although the narrative could be considered a journey toward redemption by a career criminal who regards himself as the world’s best safe-cracker, the tone shifts wildly from real-world tension and lethal danger, to family melodrama, and even the heightened fantasyland of magic realism.
At times, Dom rubs elbows with dodgy psychopaths who’d be right at home in one of Guy Ritchie’s underworld wiseguy flicks — 2000’s Snatch comes to mind — but then Shepard abruptly shifts gears, dousing our protagonist with the sort of ludicrous wicked excess that Martin Scorsese employed throughout most of the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street. And then, whoops — another sharp right turn — and Dom is doing his best to make amends with his long-estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke, immediately recognized from her role as Daenerys Targaryen, in HBO’s Game of Thrones).
It’s not necessarily impossible to juggle such disparate elements, and do so in a satisfying manner, but Shepard doesn’t succeed. Although Dom Hemingway offers numerous delights, most of them deriving from Law’s balls-to-the-wall performance, the whole is much less than the sum of various audacious parts.
Although, additional credit where due, it’s hard to resist the emotional tug of the final few scenes.
We meet Dom — following his ode to self — as he’s freed from prison after a 12-year stretch that has done little to curb his anger-management issues. He’s collected by longtime best friend Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant), who deserves hazard pay for the way he can talk Dom down from his worst bursts of fury. Most of the time.
Temper notwithstanding, Dom views himself as an honorable crook; that’s why he did his 12 years without snitching on the mastermind behind the caper in question. That would be Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), a tough-as-nails former Russian mobster who built himself a crooked empire, and has embarked upon a new life as the suave master of a gorgeous estate in the South of France.
The way Dom sees it, he’s owed more that just his share of the haul from that job, carefully saved by Mr. Fontaine. Dom also demands a bonus — a present — for keeping his mouth shut for so long. And the “present” he has in mind is Fontaine’s gorgeous girlfriend, Paolina (Madalina Ghenea): an impudent and ill-advised ultimatum that leaves Dickie white with fright.
The situation ... evolves. Dom meets a chatty call girl named Melody (Kerry Condon), who manages the deft trick of seeming both innocent and wisely philosophical. Good times are followed by bad times. Fortunes are obtained and lost.
Eventually, a near-destitute Dom — having survived a journey that can only be called Homeric — seeks employment back in London, from recently christened crime lord Lestor (Jumayn Hunter). It’s a dodgy, desperate move, because Lestor still hasn’t forgiven the way Dom treated his father. Or for the fact that, long ago, Dom killed his cat.
And, suddenly, everything comes down to an ill-advised bet, with Dom’s cherished manhood on the line. Or the chopping block, to be more precise.
Meanwhile, he has tried to work up the courage to renew his long-detached relationship with Evelyn. She, quite wisely, wants nothing to do with him. Her significant other, Hugh (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), is surprisingly kind toward Dom. Perhaps more crucially, Evelyn and Hugh’s young son — the adorable Jordan Nash, who never says a word — takes a shine to his disheveled grandfather.
Given Dom’s hard-drinking, harder-battling, hardest-womanizing lifestyle, though, that “shine” is unlikely to be enough.
It all sounds tantalizing, yes?
Granted, all the elements are in place, and the performances are strong throughout. But Shepard’s script frequently feels contrived, and too often slides in crazy directions that are wholly at odds with established character behavior. This is most particularly true with Bicher’s Mr. Fontaine: Strange enough that this deadly gentleman displays such patience with his teeth-gnashing guest — honor among thieves be damned — but it gets worse later, when Fontaine lets down his guard in a manner that is simply demented.
Shepard’s narrative never recovers from what happens next. It’s just ... daft.
Law is terrific as the self-destructive Dom. He was the perfect choice to fill Michael Caine’s considerable shoes as the wryly self-deprecating title character in the 2004 remake of Alfie, even if the film itself let him down. We can imagine Dom as an Alfie who subsequently took several wrong turns, his impetuous nature forever overpowering any remaining shreds of wisdom. Or self-preservation.
Law’s Dom projects a palpable air of desperate, tangible hunger, along with a ferocity that must be admired, even as it overcomes common sense. But then, in the blink of an eye, Law’s expression changes: depression and self-loathing washing over him like a shroud. He’s the ultimate manic-depressive, who somehow remains oddly endearing. It’s quite a performance.
Grant is a hoot as the long-suffering and heroically patient Dickie. We’re never quite sure what Dom has done, to earn Dickie’s undying friendship; we’re also not sure of Dickie’s actual role in the (former) criminal endeavors involving Dom and Mr. Fontaine. The uncertainty adds to Dickie’s allure, and Grant plays him as an oddly dignified aesthete: on the surface, a bearing that seems leagues removed from illegal behavior.
Clarke is appropriately feisty as Evelyn, her diminutive frame given impressive power by the quietly percolating fury of a wounded daughter long ignored by her deadbeat dad. Then again, when onstage as the featured singer in the band she shares with Hugh, she’s incandescent in a way that Dom finds impossible to ignore. Or abandon.
Hunter is persuasively petulant as a poseur bad guy trying to live up to his father’s nasty reputation, and Ghenea is iconic as the mostly silent Paolina: more a male fantasy than a credible human being, which is precisely what the story demands.
Ultimately, though, it’s too hard to get a bead on Shepard’s story, or — more critically — his intentions. I’m still not sure he believes Dom worthy of redemption. Or, alternatively, if it’s even in Dom’s best interest to try.
Sadly, some films just don’t click. This is one of ’em.