This So-Called Disaster Review
By Chris Barsanti
While he's better known as an actor with a distant, lonesome cowboy air about him, Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down) has for the past couple decades been one of America's greatest living playwrights - but you'd hardly know it from this film. Having cast Shepard as the ghost in his modern-day, Manhattan-set Hamlet (the Ethan Hawke one), director Michael Almereyda then agreed to make a documentary about the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the 2000 San Francisco premiere of Shepard's play, The Late Harry Moss. The play's cast is impressively star-heavy - Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin - and one imagines that Almereyda thought he could simply act as a fly on the wall, catch these greats at work, throw in some interview bits, and have a compelling document on the creation of live theater.
Needless to say, things didn't turn out that way. One very large problem is that Almereyda is new to the documentary biz and doesn't seem to have figured out how things work. Normally a visual innovator in his films like Nadja and the aforementioned Hamlet, Almereyda leaves the camera static, hoping that his subjects will provide all the necessary drama. They don't. Penn looks to be in full Mr. Hollywood mode, reading a newspaper and barely paying attention, while a shaggier-than-usual Nolte is in the throes of some chemically-induced meltdown; Harrelson and Marin just look happy to have been asked along.
The only person Almereyda interviews at any length is Shepard himself, who (as we see in an awkward bit where an AP reporter tries to get anything resembling a complete sentence out of the guy) is not the most verbally effusive of people. A writer of pretty legendary prolificness (during a five-year-stretch in the 1960s he wrote 15 plays), Shepard has shockingly little of interest to say about either his life or art. Watching Shepard direct his actors is like witnessing an exercise in obfuscation: when Harrelson asks a simple question about what they should assume the "fourth wall" facing the audience is (a window, say), he's treated to a pointless soliloquy on the history of modern theater, the breaking of the fourth wall, and Bertolt Brecht.
It doesn't help that what we see of the play itself is less than impressive, looking to be another minor work by Shepard with a pair of battling brothers, an ominous father figure, and plenty of opportunities for overacting. One wonders why Almereyda didn't just film the play instead and call it a day.
Aka This So-Called Disaster: Sam Shepard Directs the Late Henry Moss.
It's a Disaster in the making.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Wednesday 21st April 2004
Distributed by: IFC Films
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 26 Rotten: 3
Cast & Crew