Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fame 2014: Whiplash Is Too Familiar To Be Great!

The Good: ?, The direction is fine, but there is little in the film that is actually superlative
The Bad: Predictable, Unlikable character, Formulaic plot
The Basics: Whiplash is this year’s unmemorable Best Picture nominee . . . more because it is overdone and familiar than it is at all bad.

Every year, it seems like there is a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar that is utterly surprising for its getting nominated (does anyone remember Michael Clayton?!). This year, that film is Whiplash, a film whose greatest accomplishment seems to be finally answering the question, “Whatever happened to Paul Reiser?” Unlike American Sniper (reviewed here!), which was poorly written and had terrible elements to it, Whiplash is just an average story told in a way that is far from inspiring. In fact, if anything, Whiplash is a poor argument for all it tries to achieve.

At its core, Whiplash is Fame with the focus solely on a jazz concert band and where the sole “teacher” in the film is an asshole, as opposed to an inspiration. In fact, the conductor of the Studio at Shaffer in Whiplash is a bully; an abusive prick who is abetted by the silence of his victimized students. I had teachers who bullied students and I had teachers who inspired students and the bullies never brought out the greatness of those they bullied. Whiplash, in trying to soften and humanize its monstrous antagonist, seems to act as an apologist for abusers and that, instantly, takes what could be an average movie and sucks it down.

Andrew is a drummer, who is studying at the Shaffer Conservatory Of Music when he is discovered by conductor Terry Fletcher. Isolated and lonely, Andrew focuses on his drumming and Fletcher pushes him to meet his high expectations. When Andrew buckles down and practices, he impresses Fletcher and gets the confidence to ask out Nicole, the young woman who works at the movie theater he frequents with his father. But Fletcher’s demanding style soon reveals itself to be one where he plays chairs off one another and summarily dismisses musicians to keep them in line. Andrew works his hands bloody practicing to learn the most demanding piece Fletcher is having the Studio play, “Whiplash,” and when the time comes Andrew is able to play it by heart, up to Fletcher’s standards.

But Fletcher continues to push Andrew in manipulative and mean ways (bringing in his old rival from Nassau, for example) and threatening his position as a core member of the Studio band. When Fletcher threatens Andrew’s position at a big competition, Andrew gets in a car accident pushing himself to arrive at the location at the right time and performs (poorly) bloodied and confused. Kicked out of Shaffer, Andrew is pushed by his father to support a complaint against Shaffer and get Fletcher booted from the school. What follows is a conflict between Andrew and Fletcher as they appear on stage together again and Andrew openly rebels against Fletcher’s controlling influences.

There is little enjoyable about Whiplash and as the film goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Fletcher is not a good teacher (in fact, he never attempts to teach any of his players anything; he merely criticizes the way they are playing without providing constructive notes. J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher with anger (which was well within his range, established in prior performances of his) and the character is one who follows all the patterns of a classic abuser. In fact, one suspects that Whiplash is only garnering positive attention because the focus of the film is on a professional and an artist; if Fletcher were applying the same techniques as a parent or as a sexual predator, audiences would be revolting at the horror of it. There is no real entertainment value to Whiplash and the journey is not worth the payoff.

That said, Whiplash is at least watchable for much of the film. Paul Reiser’s supporting role as Andrew’s father, Jim, is presented with enough complexity to justify the attention of the audience. Jim does not monolithically support his son, but he comes through at key points for him. In a similar fashion, Whiplash manages to please by defying the expectations with the romantic subplot. Nicole is a poor match for Andrew as she has no clear goals in life and when Andrew calls her out on it and ends their relationship, it plays as very realistic. It’s actually satisfying to not have to watch a contrived relationship that has no genuine basis (or realistic chance of success) play out for a full movie simply because a romantic lead was cast for the project.

Miles Teller is fine as Andrew, but given the single-minded focus of the character, Andrew is not a very memorable character. He drums. Teller does that fine. How does Andrew pay for his schooling? How did Fletcher get known as a great? How did he survive so long in his position, treating people the way he does? Are all of the rest of the musicians at the Studio truly such weak-willed sycophants who worship at the altar of Fletcher’s reputation that they would not stand up to Fletcher when he treats people the way he does? None of these questions are answered in Whiplash and that makes it a much tougher sell than it ought to be.

Despite writer-director Damien Chazelle’s obsession with feet (we get it, Andrew is always looking down; he doesn’t meet people’s gaze), the direction is fine in Whiplash. But Whiplash is just an abuse story set to a drum beat and that hardly makes is a great film.

For other films with a strong focus on music, please visit my reviews of:
The Red Violin
A Late Quartet
Music And Lyrics


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for a complete listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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