Director: Ed Harris
Stars: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Bud Cort, Jennifer Connelly, Tom Bower
Release Company: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R
Spencer Tracy once said that the way he could tell if a part was an important one to a film was to find out who “suffers.” With that concept in mind, the main stars of Pollock must be the audience.
Unless you are into nihilistic masochism or enjoy visual ennui punctuated by sporadic drunken rages and slobbering, see something else that is more worthwhile. Even the wretched Hannibal is more entertaining. Pollock was so uninteresting and empty that I felt like walking out halfway through the movie so that I wouldn't waste another hour of my life. Unfortunately, I didn't follow my instincts and I ended up suffering through another mediocre tortured artist biopic. If you've seen the trailer, you've already seen the best parts.
After hearing the sound bite Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) gives in the trailer I was hopeful for some good insights into the famous American painter’s life and psyche. That’s the counter question he poses to the Life magazine query about how does he know when he’s done with a painting – “How do you know when you're finished making love?” Well, folks, that’s about as deep as it gets. Mostly Ed Harris shows us the alcoholic Pollock, who becomes an asshole when drunk. Not that this can’t be an interesting aspect to the character, but Harris shows no motivation for the artist’s behavior, abandoning the artist’s palate and leaving us brief and colorless sketches instead.
Thus, the film fails miserably as a character study. It doesn’t even succeed as a decent biography. We do pick up a few glimpses of his life after the insecure Pollock meets up with fellow artist and future wife Lenore (Lee) Krassner, capably portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden, and is sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan). Harris should have given Guggenheim more screen time, since she’s far more interesting that the leading two characters and actually did play a major role in promoting Jackson Pollock’s avant-garde works to a small circle of art fans.
Don’t expect to learn much about the actual artist from Harris’ film. You can learn far more about the man by reading a three-minute biography on the Internet, or by going to an art museum where a sampling of Pollock’s unique works are displayed. While it’s evidently beyond the scope of the film, why do the screenwriters neglect any mention of the tutelage that mural painter Thomas Hart Benton gave the young Pollock. Why do they fail to mention the surrealistic influences, or those of Picasso and Miró? (though one drinking scene does have Pollock spout off that Picasso is a “has been”)
Why do the writers choose to ignore the eight years of work that Pollock did for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which provided him with income as he developed his art? Although his alcoholism is alluded to, the screenwriters fail to bring to light the severe depression that Pollock struggled with to the point that his brothers Charles and Sande convinced him to seek psychoanalytic help. Instead we are asked to fill in the holes.
Why would Lee Krassner fall in love with such a jerk? He does give her a half-assed compliment when they first meet by telling her that she’s a damn good painter for a woman. She admires his painting talent, but on what basis are we supposed to believe these two actually love each other? From what they give us on screen, we must assume that there’s a whole lot more to the relationship off-screen. Not that I wanted to suffer more narration, but it would be nice if the writers filled in a more complete mural instead of giving us Pollock’s doodles and scribblings.
There are flashes of hope -- mostly when Harris emerges from a silent stupor and begins to energetically pour and stoke paint onto a huge canvas. That’s when Harris gets more creative with his camera angles and editing to create more onscreen energy. Sadly these moments are fleeting. Of course it’s difficult to portray artistic genius on screen. Many other films have attempted such portraits of Goya, Van Gogh, and Picasso recently but came up short. Only Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat has successfully portrayed the creative nature of an artist in recent years, but Schnabel is an artist himself.
Of course, it is well known that Ed Harris has dedicated himself to this project over the past 10 years and learned to paint in the style of Pollock. That ultimate exercise in method acting should have given him some insights into the character, but Harris doesn’t translate much of that to his screen performance. Instead, he gets drunk a lot and gets carried home. He may even cry and drool for the camera so that he can get that Oscar nomination, but we don’t know why. Other times he’ll shout out monotonous shallow lines like “I’m not the phony. You’re the phony.” or “Let’s make a baby” a few times. True to the trailer, Harris will overturn the family table near the end, but nothing more is explained about his motivation than what you see in the trailer. What’s the point of all that shouting and ranting? It struck me of phony acting (note that there will be no close-up during this lame scene).
Overall, the film gives us a plodding glimpse of the latter part of Jackson Pollock’s life. Ed Harris may physically resemble the actual artist, but he gives us no insights into the man’s character and soul. I was hoping for much more than seeing Ed Harris put on a few pounds (a la Robert De Niro or Liz Taylor) to represent Pollock in his latter stages, and came out of the theater empty and feeling disappointed and cheated.
If the film hadn’t shown some of Pollock’s beautiful paintings, I would have no further interest in the artist. I could blame the weak screenwriting for the shallowness of the film; however, the director is supposed to oversee the project and realize whether it is working or not. Ed Harris has shown that he’s a terrific character actor in his body of work, and deserved a Supporting Oscar for his memorable Apollo 13 performance. . He just flops in his directorial debut. Perhaps Harris got too close to his own impressionistic canvas because the film delivers far less than you’d expect from a biopic about Jackson Pollock
Negative word of mouth, bad reviews, and poor box office receipts mercifully kept the masses from suffering through this film at the multiplexes. Unfortunately the over-rated acting performances may dupe a few suckers (like me) into checking Pollock out. Go to your local art museum instead.