Going into Max I knew nothing at all of what it was about. With such a title (and let's face it, a truly awful one at that), Max could have been a story about anything. The last thing I would ever have expected would be that it was a semi-fictionalized tale of a young Adolf Hitler after the close of WWI, when he was trying to make it as an artist.
The Max in question is Max Rothman (John Cusack), an amalgam of various art dealers and teachers who mentors the young Corporal Hitler (Noah Taylor) in the ways of art. Max himself is an artist too (an early performance artist, it seems, based on a bizarre skit seemingly inspired by Pink Floyd: The Wall) and sees potential in the young Adolf, urging him on while watching him grow more political as forces turn him in the direction he ultimately took. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Max is a Jew (not to mention a one-armed cripple), the hatred of which becomes the centerpiece of Hitler's ideology.
While Adolf's frustrations with bringing his artistic talents to fruition are fascinating and aptly dramatic (his scenes of creative blockage rival Pollock), Hitler's political ambitions are questionably developed, at best. Hitler is presented as alternately co-opted by Nazi precursors and simply insane, ranting and hollering at home-spun rallies. (Rothman dismisses him as a lunatic, as does almost everyone else in the film.)
As we already question Max's historical accuracy from the get-go, the strange machinations that lead Hitler to become a dictator really don't jibe. The film's finest moment is near then end, when Rothman -- their relationship now crumbling -- examines Hitler's final works, his early concept drawings for Nazi uniforms, buildings, and "super-roads." It's enough to make you think that hey, maybe this is where the idea to bring back the swastika came from...
The performances are hit-and-miss. Taylor is exceptional on the whole, but Cusack is miscast (far too Gentile), and the supporting players are forgettable. Writer/director Menno Meyjes is best known as the writer of the script for The Color Purple and a collaborator on Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a number of minor films. In his directoral debut, Meyjes proves perfectly apt behind the camera, if a little conceited. Like some people (a Jewish group tentatively called for the banning of this film despite the fact that it really is harmless and fails to glamorize Hitler in any way), Meyjes appears to have taken his trifle much too seriously. Hard to blame him, but it weakens his effort considerably. Mel Brooks one-upped him years ago.