Max (2002)

Rated R for language.

Starring John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen.
Written and directed by Menno Meyjes.
Distributed by Lions Gate Films.
106 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 5/10

  
Photo ©Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.

How He Became Hitler

Controversy sells, right? That's why Max should garner plenty of publicity. Writer/director Menno Meyjes and actor/producer John Cusack certainly met a great deal of resistance while trying to pitch their story of an art dealer who befriends a young, pre-dictator, artistically ambitious Adolf Hitler. "How dare you humanize a monster?" was often the response they got. Cusack's reply? "How dare we not? It's easy to portray him as a monster, it's harder and more disturbing to show his humanity and how it became poisoned."

But the downfall of Max doesn't come from an attempt to humanize Hitler -- it results from a failure to do so effectively. Hitler, played with gusto by Noah Taylor, is actually depicted with a rather simplistic personality. He's a confused young man who believes himself to be a good painter and art critic -- but who also discovers he has a knack for strong oratory. Although he's a racist at heart, he doesn't believe he is; he's not trying to be hurtful, he's merely very opinionated; and he has no secret desire to take over nations, he's just in need of direction. Basically, he's like many kids who come out of college (or, in his case, duty in the German army during World War I) -- filled with ideas but with no clue where to apply them.

Enter the fictional Max Rothman (Cusack), a wealthy art dealer who lost his right arm serving in the war. He's a man of loose morals, but he believes in the future of art almost as much as he believes in being able to hawk the works he exhibits in his makeshift gallery at an abandoned factory. When Hitler visits on one occasion, Max recognizes within this diminutive man an artist with a lot of potential, one whose bitterness, anger, and resentment seem waiting to be expressed on canvas. Max encourages Hitler to paint outside his usual boundaries, but the harder poor Adolf tries, the more he suffers from artist's block. Meanwhile, he finds it much easier to express himself through manic, inciteful rhetoric. From this simple set-up, one can too easily see the telegraphed conclusion. Oh, if only Hitler had stuck to painting, the world might not have witnessed the horror of his Nazi rule.

Granted, Max doesn't present this situation as the sole explanation for Hitler's eventual rise -- it only offers the concept as the beginning of the path to madness. But a subject like Hitler deserves stronger psychological exploration than such a fairy-tale-level story is able to handle. The only reason for viewers to be horrified involves their pre-knowledge that -- gasp! -- this is Hitler, and any mis-step in his guidance will lead the world to ruin. The film uses built-in hindsight as an excuse not to engage in deeper characterization of a true, motivated personality, nor to further hypothesize about the seeds of evil inherent within the man. Instead, Max substitutes surface-deep referencing -- watch Hitler as he listens attentively to an anti-Semetic speech; recoil in dread when he reveals his drawings of a futuristic regime! It's a bit like Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, when fans point to the screen and says, "Look! Those are the eventual Stormtroopers! Look! It's the Death Star schematic!" In the case of Star Wars, it's a fun foreshadowing of evil in a fictional universe; in the case of Max, it's a dumbing-down of a complex historical figure.

John Cusack's performance both hinders and enhances this unusual drama. Although his character is supposed to be a pre-WWII German Jew who tries to sell art -- according to Meyjes, a "combination of many people" representing a "profoundly idealistic and humanistic European Jewish life," he acts like, well, ... John Cusack. A fun actor in the right parts, Cusack seems stuck with a too-conspicuously anachronistic character here. However, his repartee with Taylor's obnoxiously self-assured college-nerd Hitler comes across as somewhat entertaining to watch. It's funny to see this pushy guy shove Hitler around while Hitler tries to respond by snapping back at his patron. Their conversations are amusing, but not what one would expect from a serious drama about Hitler.

Max ends in the worst way possible. It's a contrived scenario with a result most people should be able to see coming from a mile away. Although supposedly disturbing, it resembles a comic book version about the origin of a supervillain. The finale, one last weakly-executed metaphor, suggests that a string of unfortunate events combined with common youthful frustration -- not a complex psychological journey stemming from deep-rooted beliefs -- led to the emergence of the 20th century's most hated dictator.

©Jeffrey Chen, Oct. 30, 2002

This review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

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