Despite James McAvoy's best efforts, 'Victor Frankenstein' is an otherwise charmless bore
Victor Frankenstein 20th Century Fox
Director: Paul McGuigan
Screenplay: Max Landis
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Freddie Fox, Andrew Scott and Charles Dance
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
November 25, 2015
(out of four)
Performance has a way of dramatically altering the way we perceive a film, perhaps most blatantly when it fails to serve the tone, style or intentions (if not all three) of everyone and everything else. It's easy to think of this as a bad thing; we've all seen a good movie with that one conspicuously off performance, as if the actor is acting in a completely different film than the rest of the cast.
But then there's the alternative. The overachieving star in a bad (even profoundly bad) movie, doing all he or she can to make something interesting out of lackluster material. Even - or especially - if it means contradicting that material. Say what you will about Nic Cage, but I've seen him do this more than once - get creative and strange and committed in a film that does not serve such commitment or creativity.
In that light, I believe Victor Frankenstein owes James McAvoy a certain debt of gratitude. It's not that this is a performance of staggering depth, or one that will be remembered past next week. It isn't, and it won't. But it is, entirely on its own, a crafty piece of misdirection. It is a performance that manages to distract us, at least for a time, from how utterly humorless the movie itself is. It projects a kind of mad energy that makes it seem like we're watching a piece of light entertainment.
Now, to be clear, whatever type of entertainment it seems like at any given moment, it's still a very bad one. That fact is never in doubt. But McAvoy gives us the sense, at least, that there is some inherent fun in what the movie is going for. This is a mirage. Sooner or later it becomes clear that everyone else involved in its creation is playing it more or less straight, embodying precisely the glum, ugly and stupid movie Victor Frankenstein yearned to be all along. McAvoy is making an eccentric caper film, while everybody else is straddling the most boring line imaginable between gritty seriousness and period-piece formality.
The contradiction in tone and behavior is at least somewhat intentional, of course. His character, a young, still-in-medical-school Victor Frankenstein, is the would-be mad scientist, after all. There's supposed to be a conflict of personality (not to mention ethics and social decorum). But the movie surrounding McAvoy is so aggressively bad, so empty of ideas, so lacking in energy, that the intended interplay never actually emerges.
The thing is, I shouldn't even be talking this much about Victor, because Victor isn't even the main character in his own movie. The main character is Daniel Radcliffe's Igor - which I suppose is screenwriter Max Landis' idea of a fresh approach, for whatever it's worth - a circus hunchback with a predilection for human anatomy who is rescued (via an escape, a chase and a shooting) by Victor one night and immediately groomed as his assistant and accomplice. We see Igor enthusiastically adapt to normal life - the possibility of having a friend, of doing exciting, even dangerous work, of talking to the acrobat (Jessica Brown Findlay) on whom he has harbored an infatuation for years. And as Victor's experiments grow more and more dubious, we see Igor struggle both with the ethics of what they're doing and the increasingly stark reality that Victor is an authoritarian, self-absorbed prick who wants obedience from Igor rather than partnership, let alone friendship.
Incidentally, director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Slevin) has his share of experience with a similar character dynamic, having helmed four episodes of Sherlock, with its authoritarian, self-absorbed prick of a title character (viewed, as in the case of this movie, mostly from an outside perspective) and his more sensitive, morally conscientious sidekick.
Ultimately, that's neither here nor there, as Landis' writing has neither the sensitivity nor intelligence nor tact to make its central duo a memorable one. And just wait until you see the contemptibly phony way Landis tries to explain - if not justify - Victor's actions. I'm not sure which is worse - the cheap psychology at the heart of it, or the cheap sentiment.
Grossly overfamiliar in everything it's trying to be - sci-fi; horror; procedural; fringe-outsider-coming-of-age story; inquiry into religious thought in the face of scientific advancement - Victor Frankenstein seems superficially ambitious while never actually bothering to probe its ideas or genres in any meaningful fashion.
Here is the thoroughly depressing result of Landis and McGuigan's work here: Do you know how easy it would be to make constant references or bad, Shalit-level puns about McAvoy breathing life into this inanimate husk of a movie? Or about how a movie about an inventor is so wholly lacking in inventiveness? Do you realize how much mileage I could get out of that crap?
And yet I don't even bother. I've lost the will to make bad jokes in the face of terrible, lazy art. This could be a troubling sign. Or, it could be that I'm simply following the movie's lead, and being as dull and humorless as possible.