Movie Review: Drama – Beautiful Boy
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, and Amy Ryan
Hollywood has had an unbridled love affair with drugs and alcohol from its earliest decades, even before Errol Flynn first rubbed cocaine on his junk. And whether out of penance or hypocrisy, the movie business also loves to make films that show the perils of this attraction. Films about the ill effects of drug and alcohol abuse date back almost as long as there have been addicts in the business, from the hysterical morality tale exaggerations of 1936’s anti-pot propaganda piece turned midnight movie stoner favorite, Reefer Madness, through Billy Wilder’s gripping 1945 best picture winner, The Lost Weekend, with its Oscar-winning lead performance by Ray Milland as a tortured alcoholic, to Otto Preminger’s The Man with The Golden Arm, featuring no less than Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict. The tradition has continued with more contemporary and explicit fare like Danny Boyle’s harrowing and gruesome heroin opus, Trainspotting (1990) And Darren Aronofsky’s gloomy (and goofy) Requiem for a Dream. And let us not forget (or maybe we should) the countless moralizing TV movies that have come and gone since. Today, addiction films continue their relevance as the scourge of drug abuse continues to take American lives in record numbers.
You’ve got to respect Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy for not completely succumbing to the kind of feature length “drugs are bad m’kay” PSA that tends to rule the genre. And you have to admire the caliber of talent that’s been assembled to tell his story. He draws out impeccable performances from his three leads, Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, and Maura Tierney. The film’s upper-class setting is beautifully captured in the meticulously detailed production design of Ethan Tobman, and in the rich but subdued tones of cinematographer Reuben Impens. And Groeningen’s sober pace, for the most part, avoids traditional Hollywood sensationalism. But in the end, none of these things add up to much. The whole of Beautiful Boy is less than the sum of its parts. There’s no alchemy, no magic, and no new revelation. And the blame falls squarely on a script that doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a straightforward rendering of its true story.
The screenplay, written by Groeningen and Luke Davies (Lion) and based on the twin memoirs of writer David Sheff’s, “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His son’s Addiction” and his son Nic’s memoir, “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines,” chronicles Nic’s (Chalamet) decent into meth addiction and his father’s attempts to understand it all and pull him out of it. As David (Carell) tries desperately to grasp how his once beautiful boy could have degenerated from successful student scholar/athlete into a sleazy multiple-drug addict who steals his kid brother’s savings and later, ODs on black tar heroin in a public toilet stall, he begins to research the subject in every way he can. He finds an addict on the street, feeds her lunch and riddles her with questions. He contacts a specialist (Timothy Hutton) who explains in clinical detail, the insidious nature of methamphetamine, and how it permanently changes the brain, destroying nerves and the brain’s ability to produce dopamine, thus requiring more and more drugs to replace the feel-good hormone. That scene flirts with the kind of stilted TV movie exposition meant to inform the audience more than the characters. But to be fair, it is informative, less clumsily presented than usual, and seems appropriate given that it’s part of David’s attempts to educate himself.
The problem is we never really understand Ric’s psychological need to do the drug in the first place. At some point he describes his need to fill the black hole inside himself and describes how using meth for the first time made him feel better than he’d ever felt before, two accurate points that every drug addict, or recovering addict, will attest to. But why does he feel this way? On the surface it seems illogical, as it must have to the real David Sheff. But the relationship between the two seems dishonestly close and overly respectful. The kind of perfect Father/Son relationship that only exists in the movies. The two are relaxed and honest together, share tastes in music, and even smoke a joint together. True, Ric’s parents are divorced, but he’s close to both his parents as well as his stepmother (Tierney). So why is he so empty inside?
There’s a logical, truthful, and no doubt complicated, underpinning for all of his feelings, and it may be impossible to fully understand them. But the film refuses to even try. What could have made the movie stand out from the crowd would have been a rolling up of its sleeves, digging into the dirt, and exploring some real character development. The film is authentic in its depiction of Nic’s addiction, but the familiarity of it all dampens the effect. The movie connects to the audience in only the most superficial of ways. Countless flashbacks of Nic in his youth illustrate David’s attachment to him, and his unwillingness to give up, but they edify less than they act as a substitute for a real character development and forward momentum. Beautiful Boy takes the tired and easy path and simply documents the events and trappings of addiction like so many films before.
It’s up to the actors to bring home the drama and to a certain extent they do. Carell is solid as usual, though it’s a less showy part than some of his recent roles like the flamboyant Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes and the creepy Jon du Pont in Foxcatcher. Tierney, who was nominated for an Emmy for her compelling performances on TV’s ER, and was a regular on the beloved sitcom News Radio, is memorable in the thankless role of Nic’s beleaguered stepmother. But Chalamet, as Nic, once again proves why he’s the most gifted young actor of his generation. He never strikes a false note. As with his Oscar nominated performance in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, his willingness to lay his soul bare for the sake of the character puts most veteran actors and actresses to shame. His performance in the Guadagnino film is among the greatest in recent screen history, but he lost the Oscar to Gary Oldman’s lofty but actor-ish, prosthetic-heavy portrayal of Winston Churchill, a career award for a stellar resumé. Chalamet should have won. And the Academy will likely try to make up for it by rewarding him for this film. This role has everything they love: tears, breakdowns, confrontations and utterly believable moments of desperate behavior. It’s likely the studio will submit him in the best supporting actor category to increase his chance of winning the award. The same was done in 1981 for his costar Hutton despite his lead role in Ordinary People, resulting in a win. Had he been submitted in the lead actor category, Hutton would surely have lost to Robert DeNiro’s legendary performance in Raging Bull. Chalamet gets second billing in Beautiful Boy but he’s clearly the lead. He’ll get his Oscar. He’s brilliant and the Academy knows it.
But for all Chalamet’s brilliance, Beautiful Boy just lays there. It settles comfortably into its own predictability and expects us to be enthralled by its clichés simply because it’s a true story, but that’s irrelevant. Eric Clapton won accolades and Grammys for his song “Tears in Heaven,” about the tragic loss of his five-year-old son Conor. While the loss he suffered was heartbreaking, the song itself is high fructose corn syrup on vinyl, an unlistenable mush of clichés that would never wash if we didn’t know the sad reality from which it sprung. But when you look past your sympathy for the man who wrote it, it’s terrible. Beautiful Boy isn’t as bad as the Clapton song, but it isn’t that good either. Its story may be true, its source books may be compelling in their vivid detail, but it isn’t memorable as a dramatic film. This is the problem with telling true stories: the attempt at accuracy often means sacrificing dramatic structure and plot. And there’s only two possible conclusions to stories about addicts anyway: the patient recovers, or the patient doesn’t (and usually dies). See Beautiful Boy, by all means, to witness Chalamet in all his glory, but don’t expect much more than a good excuse for a nap.