So much controversy has been swirling around the release of "Max" -- a fictional film about a Jewish art dealer in post-World War I Germany who takes an angry young painter named Adolf Hitler under his wing -- that an important fact has been lost in the debate: the movie just isn't very good.
Criticized for potentially humanizing the most systematically monstrous racist and tyrant of the 20th Century, the picture really has the opposite problem. Hitler, played by the talented Noah Taylor ("Shine"), is so nervously seething with bile, resentment, fear and anger that it's difficult to take him seriously during pivotal scenes in which the young Nazi party organizer is spitting his venomous but empty anti-Semitic propaganda to crowds on the streets of Berlin.
Writer-director Menno Meyjes (making his directorial debut after scripting such films as "The Color Purple" and "The Siege") seems to realize this problem too. He keeps cutting away to audience members nodding emphatically to lend the character credibility he would be hard-pressed to find without such a scripted peanut gallery.
But what "Max" does do well is dare to show another side of the proto-maniacal Hitler -- an unstable vulnerability in the future dictator as a young, acrimonious war veteran with the technique, but not the talent, to be a painter.
He's encouraged nonetheless by a modern art broker named Max Rothman (played with a too-contemporary bent John Cusack) who out of sympathy for the hungry, angry ex-soldier tries to find something amiable, promising or strong in him. "You've got to take all this pent up stuff that you're quivering with and put it on the canvas," he advises. "It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be true."
An interesting concept for a historical "what if" story, the film lacks depth. Instead of truly exploring theoretical roots of what might have turned a frustrated painter into the future Fuhrer, it reduces him to not much more than a trenchant nerd, bitter over not getting laid, not selling any paintings, and having nothing else in his life.
Ironically, "Max" does have a keen understanding of German politics of the time. Taking place just after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles -- which broke off parts of Germany, burdened the country with Europe's war debt and included a demoralizing "guilt clause" -- the film succeeds in showing how the seeds of World War II were sown by the very vehicle of peace that brought WWI to an end.
"I think the peace is a travesty," says Rothman, who became an art dealer after losing his painting arm in combat. "But I don't think I can manage to pick the German banner out of the mud with my one arm."
When this national disgust begets Hitler's nationalistic rhetoric, however, Meyjes and Taylor over-sell his vehemence to such a degree that if it weren't for the actor's commitment to finding the character's heart -- black as it may be -- he'd be as ridiculous as an action movie villain.
When he's not taking the part to the extreme, Taylor's hollow cheeks, bad haircut, tattered army jacket and haggard, defeated but choleric body language personify a festering malignity that provides an eerie glimpse into his character's future. In his best scene, Taylor portrays Hitler trying to paint. He approaches the canvas as if trying to calm a rabid dog, coming at it slowly, touching it quickly, getting scared and backing away.
Cusack, on the other hand, is miscast. His demeanor and dialogue (sprinkled too liberally with four-letter words) are incongruous with the film's 1919 setting. And as a man, Max's character is poorly developed.
Why does he have a mistress (Leelee Sobieski) when his wife (Molly Parker) is loving and sexy, and his home life seems happy (two great kids, gorgeous post-modern home)? What is with his laughably weird but utterly simplistic piece of performance art that takes up a whole scene in the movie? And really, what does he see in Aldoph Hitler's dry, methodical art that makes him think the guy might be on the verge of a creative breakthrough?
Misfortune and coincidence eventually bring the story around in the direction we know Adolf Hitler will inevitably take history. But it's hard to believe the National Socialist German Workers' Party would have ever given the Hitler in this movie a public soapbox, and it's even harder to believe people would have listened. This Hitler is more a turbulent outcast who today might shoot up his high school than he is a cult-of-personality type future despot.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th June 2003
Box Office USA: $0.2M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%
Fresh: 77 Rotten: 34
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Menno Meyjes
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