Chained for Life

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

(2018) Drama (Kino LorberJess Wexler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick, Joanna Arrow, Cosmo Bjorkenheim, Will Blomker, Lauren Brown, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Jon Dieringer, Rayvin Disla, Daniel Gilchrist, Avi Glickstein, Miranda Gruss, Rebecca Gruss, Colin Healey, William Huntley, Joaquina Kalukango, Lucy Kaminsky. Directed by Aaron Schimberg

 

There is no doubt that filmmaking is a translation of our thoughts and creativity. As such, filmmakers tend to live in a kind of a dream world, one in which they can shape their celluloid world to bring their imagination to life. Once in a while, the lines between real and reel blur somewhat.

Mabel (Wexler) is busy making an indie film to put a little extra jump in her career as an actress. She’s playing a blind patient of a mad doctor (Plunkett) who runs a clinic full of disfigured people, from Siamese twins to bearded ladies to the hideously scarred. The director (Korsmo) – whom it is rumored grew up in a circus and speaks with a pronounced German actor even though he may not be German – in order to enhance the realism is filming in an actual clinic in which the disfigured are cared for and has cast a few in the film, including the romantic lead Rosenthal (Pearson).

Rosenthal has a condition called Neurofibromatosis (which actor Adam Pearson is afflicted with in real life) but has a sweet, gentle soul. He’s not a professional actor and is having trouble remembering his lines and enlists Mabel’s help. Mabel, for her part, has trouble looking straight at her co-star but as they spend time together, her inhibitions begin to dissolve as she sees beyond what Hollywood tends to sell as normal.

Schimberg, making his first American feature, is weaving several stories together; the story of the film crew, the story of the film, the story of a film that the inmates at the clinic are making when the film crew goes back to their hotel at night and perhaps a story that is more meta than at first glance. In that sense, he shows a good deal of ambition and that’s to be applauded.

He also gets to skewer the insular nature of a film set; as the camera wanders through we pick up snippets of conversations and gossip. There’s also some business that have a sense of whimsy to them, like the hospital administrator (Arrow) who is continually looking for someone in charge to get the trucks blocking their driveway moved, or the film crew wondering if Siamese twins are a thing anymore.

He doesn’t pull it off, unfortunately. Towards the end of the film all of the stories begin to blend together until the viewer isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Normally, I’d consider that an artistic triumph but here it feels more like he’s painted himself into a corner and doesn’t really care about leaving tracks on the fresh paint.

Wexler, who has an impressive resume to her credit, shows plenty of screen presence here. She’s undoubtedly a beautiful woman but even beyond that she is able to handle both the shallowness that is part and parcel of the industry but also at the same time manages to give her character a sense of depth beyond the surface. Wexler, who has qualities of both Brie Larson and Drew Barrymore as an actress, manages to fuse both into a complete and compelling character.

There are going to be those who are going to raise questions about exploitation here and in a sense I can understand it. Schimberg utilizes a lot of tight close-ups of Pearson’s face, lingering on the deformities that have almost a prurient aspect to them. He seems to be sending the message Rosenthal is more than his physical attributes but at the same time he seems perfectly okay with dwelling on them. Perhaps that’s a comment on how cinematographers dwell on the features of beautiful actors and actresses in the same way.

This had the making of a compelling film until the final 20 minutes at which time it just seems to lose its way. There’s still plenty of material here to give the average cinephile some food for thought, but not enough to make for a satisfying meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Wexler has oodles of screen presence. The film examines preconceptions of normality and attraction.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lethargic pacing with plenty of cinematic non-sequiturs. Goes off the rails in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first onscreen acting credit for Korsmo in 20 years since Can’t Hardly Wait (1998).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Official Secrets

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