Movie Review: Annette Bening & Jamie Bell Shine In The Otherwise Forgettable “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool”

“While I wouldn’t call McGuigan’s eighth feature ‘memorable,’ it’s certainly mildly-diverting due to its lead performances and marks the second minor highlight in the director’s somewhat-unremarkable career.”


 

A romance sparks between a young actor and a Hollywood leading lady.

Director Paul McGuigan made exactly one memorable film, and that was 18 years ago: the sadistic “Gangster No. 1,” mostly resonant due to Malcolm McDowell’s deranged lead performance and the in-your-face grotesque violence. That was McGuigan’s second directorial feature, after his “‘Trainspotting’ wannabe” debut, the hollow but colorful “Acid House.” A chain of tepid releases followed, negligible-to-average thrillers that had their rare moments but failed to connect with audiences: “The Reckoning,” “Wicker Park,” “Lucky Number Slevin,” “Push” – and the most recent box office bomb, “Victor Frankenstein,” as poorly hobbled together as its monster.

Now, in an admirable move, McGuigan shifts gears and visualizes screenwriter Matt Greenblah’s (who wrote the superb “Control”) adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir, the nostalgic May-December romance “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” While its leads try their best to anchor the film in depth, it treads shallow waters. One can’t help but imagine what a more visionary/adventurous/capable director like, say, Michael Winterbottom or Danny Boyle, would have made of such a poignant real-life story. McGuigan does his best to follow all the rights beats – but sometimes stepping wrong is what makes a film such as this special.

Liverpool, 1981. Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), a washed-up Hollywood star who hit her peak in the 1950s when she won an Oscar, shows up with “stomach gas” at her young bisexual lover Peter’s (Jamie Bell) Liverpool home. It’s immediately apparent that her “gas” is actually a terminal sickness, and Gloria’s in denial, hiding from the world in Peter’s bedroom, convinced she’ll get better. Flashbacks to 1979 reveal their “meet-cute.” They dance together in an extended sequence. He takes her to see “Alien,” where they giggle and make-out. She, in turn, takes him to her play – where she states, “Everybody here wants to fuck me,” with a grace that only Bening can manage.

Smitten and fascinated by the star, Peter follows her to a green-screen Los Angeles, then to a greener-screen New York. Back in 1981, once Peter finds out what’s really wrong with Gloria, he tries to convince her to be with family, but, delusional, she is resolutely staying in Liverpool. Who wouldn’t? Of course, she doesn’t get any better. The second half of “FSDDIL” devolves into a weepy-of-the-week, albeit with Hollywood polish: nifty cinematography courtesy of Urszula Pontikos and Eve Stewart’s gold-hued, suitably retro production design.

There are sequences peppered throughout the film that provide glimpses of how much more fun and unexpected it all could have been. Peter’s terrified at the movies, while she laughs at him – a rare honest moment, untouched by Hollywood gloss and/or schmaltz. In another touching scene, Gloria gets offended when Peter deems her too old to play Juliet in Shakespeare’s play. Peter’s mom’s reluctance to go to Manila (a running thread through the film) is lukewarm but at least provides SOME insight into his family.

And of course, the leads are magnificent. While Bening carries the film – no surprise there – embodying a sophisticated has-been who’s prone to eccentricities and bad moods, Bell becomes the emotional epicenter of “FSDDIL”. Whether they fight or make love, the two actors’ chemistry is palpable – and the film’s saving grace.

Problem is, “FSDDIL” doesn’t fully function as an examination of what it means to have fallen off the peak of stardom. Nor does it probe deep enough when it comes to its two protagonists’ relationship. Stale and generic, energized only by the sparks of its leads, McGuigan’s bio-pic chugs along, predictable every step of the way, never too boring, but never exhilarating either.

From time to time, the director utilizes stylistic techniques – meta sequences of Bening-as-Grahame watching herself on the silver screen; pseudo-1950s flashbacks – but they do little to elevate the affair above its cancer drama tropes. For a film that deals so much with faith, it never takes a leap of it. While I wouldn’t call McGuigan’s eighth feature “memorable,” it’s certainly mildly-diverting due to its lead performances and marks the second minor highlight in the director’s somewhat-unremarkable career.

In select theaters February 2nd


 

Alex graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a BA in Film & Media Arts and studied journalism at the Northwestern University in Chicago. While there, he got acquainted with the late Roger Ebert, who supported and inspired Alex in his career as a screenwriter and film critic. Alex has produced, written and directed a short zombie film, “Parched,” which is being distributed internationally and he is developing a series for a TV network, and is in pre-production on a major motion picture.
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  • Gloria
    3 February 2018 at 4:37 AM
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