' Cinema Romantico: James White

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

James White

“James White” opens with the titular character, played by Christopher Abbott, sweaty and drunk, seemingly suspended between two worlds, emblemized by the party hearty music blasting across the dance floor contrasted against the lush easy listening standards piped through one earbud he still has plugged in. It’s an apt metaphor for the character’s life state, one that finds him an immature adolescent given to smoking, boozing and brawling while nevertheless being forced to confront adulthood through the inevitable form of his father dying as the film opens while simultaneously caring for his mother (Cynthia Nixon) who is in the miserable throes of Stage IV cancer. And I know what you’re thinking here; you’re thinking, “Yikes. A Judd Apatow-ish Manboy stuffed inside two disease of the weeks movies in one?” But that synopsis would not do Josh Mond’s debut feature film justice, one that both succeeds in resisting mawkishness and refusing to strain for the operatic. Instead it takes its cues from the downtrodden visual palette, one that suggests a modern-day Manboy living in a Kitchen Sink world. After all, his name isn’t Gregory LaCava or Montgomery Clift; it’s James White.


Christopher Abbott’s performance is fiercely unsentimental. A would-be writer, he’s like Philip Lewis Friedman plunked down in “Beginners”, using and abusing his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi) and the young girl Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) he kind of starts dating who just sort of drifts into his life and remains on the periphery which isn't really a criticism of underwriting another female character but explicating the way in which James treats this woman he supposedly really likes. (She’s also young, too young for him probably, which is right, because anyone his actual age would know he’s trouble.) There is also a family friend, Ben, played to perfection by an empathetic if stern Ron Livingston who looks at James the way we look at him - with alternate sorrow and frustration. He understands why James is struggling to get it together, but also wants with all his quiet might to light a fire under James.

The film’s most painful sequence involves James’ interview with Ben for a position at New York Magazine. James shows up late, stinky, hungover, wearing a tee shirt, carrying a writing sample that may well have been scribbled on the back of his weights & measures page. Ben has to send him away; James can’t quite grasp why, emblemizing the tunnel vision hamstringing him, captured in so many of tight close-ups that Mond employs.

But even if James is a prickly narcissist drifting perilously close to implosion, the sympathy we feel for him is wrought in the tender, truthful interactions he has with his mom in her time of dying, going out for her prescriptions, getting her to the hospital when she’s in dire straits, fighting the hospital staff to get her a decent bed when she doesn't have one. He's a loving son, ferociously devoted, but in that ferocity it is clearly conveyed that he is also a son that has used his mother as something of a crutch to delay having to act in any tangible way on his own life. The whole film becomes a grown up child trying to leave the womb.


You can see precisely where Nixon’s character connects to Abbott’s. She is an enabler, and if she realizes this, she does not necessarily do much about it, chastising her son even as she turns right around and lovingly allows his slow-burning destruction to re-engage. She can't help it; she needs him as much as he needs her. And if Abbot's performance would rather spit in your eye than shake your hand every step of the way, Nixon makes death by disease feel like the confusing, awful, unglamorous mess it really is. She is not gradually coming to peace with her successes and failures; she is slowly coming unglued from reality, her mind departing her body. It’s a tough watch, and consequently she resists even the slightest hint of martyrdom, and so does Mond’s script. There are no sappy confessionals, no painfully obvious catharsis. If there is an arc here it is almost impossible to discern, resisted by Abbott’s turn, where even as he begins to realize where he went wrong, he still leaves us wondering if he will have the wherewithal to do anything about it.

This sucker punch of an open end is rendered in the film’s final shot. So often cigarettes on screen are just a crutch; a means to give the actor something to do, or to show they are this or that. Here, however, James White smokes one last cigarette before the rest of his life. It burns down. What now?

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