Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demián Bichir, Emilia Clarke, Kerry Condon, Jumayn Hunter
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 4 Apr 2014 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 15 Nov 2013 (General release); 2013)
What, exactly, happened to Jude Law? There was a time, right around the turn of the new millennium, where he was poised to be the next Hugh Grant (not that anyone would want that title today, this was the end of the ‘90s so hear us out). He was up and coming, appearing in excellent fare like Gattaca, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Stephen Spielberg’s Kubrick salvage job, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, David Cronenberg’s ahead of its time eXistenZ, and David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. 2004 seems to be the tipping point, however. Somewhere around Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the dashing good looks of this meant to be matinee idol dissolved into a series of silly career choices. While he benefited from being one of the better Dr. Watson’s to Robert Downey Jr.‘s revisionist Sherlock Holmes, he’s seen his fortunes lag significantly - and he’s only 41 years old.
So it makes sense he would gravitate to such tour de force material as Dom Hemingway. Even the title sounds like an inside joke that no one will get except the filmmaker - The Matador‘s Richard Shepard - and his cast will clearly understand. Law plays the title character, a brilliant if bafflingly self-destructive safe cracker whose just spent 12 years in prison, taking the wrap for someone else. Reconnecting with his best buddy Dickie (Richard E. Grant) and desperate to see Mr. Fontaine (Demain Bicher) the crime boss who he protected, all our alcohol fueled anti-hero wants to do is drink, screw, and travel to St. Tropez. There, he will pick up his cut of the loot. Then he will try to make amends with his twenty-something daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke). One car crash and a stolen satchel later and Dom destitute and even more driven to see his offspring. Naturally, she wants nothing to do with him. Contacting a former adversary (Jumayn Hunter), he longs to get back in the game and regain his diminished swagger.
Overwritten, overacted, and frequently over-stylized, Dom Hemingway is a movie that constantly gets in the way of itself. Had writer/director Richard Shepard calmed down a bit, lowering the timber of everyone and everything involved in the telling of his story, we’d have a delicious black comedy. Instead, we have Cheesecake Factory sized portions of preposterousness accented by Jude Law going apeshit every five minutes. As Dom, his rants are like incendiary political screeds, each one delivered with a teeth baring ferocity that’s supposed to suggest pent-up brutality but only ends up being superficial. Law, with his oddball facial hair, sunken eyes, and frequent hangover head wounds, really believes he is this bloke. He is selling it. Through all the bluster and buffoonery, however, we just see a good looking actor trying to slum.
We sense it from the first five minutes. Dom, his naked form being serviced by an unseen woman while in prison, goes on a lengthy discussion of his dick. He gives it various attributes, calls it clever names, and even explains its worthiness for a place in the Louvre and the Nobel Peace Prize. While Shepard must believe this is a hilariously profane way to introduce his main character to the audience, it’s weirdly off putting as well. In fact, the viewer is left to wonder why Dom, in the middle of fellatio, would go on as he does. Whose he talking to? Something similar happens when our lead pays a visit to the man who married his late ex-wife. Fresh from behind bars, he commits a series of acts that, at least in the United States, would land him back in the pokey post haste. Here, he has a conversation with a pal about his university age kid. Such illogic is a sign of what Shepard wants to accomplish. He’s already got himself a supposedly larger than life character. Why not make his existence hyper-real as well?
Sometimes, it works. When Dom is driving his drunken comrades around in liquored up celebration of his payday, Shepard stages the inevitable car crash in a visually exciting way. In other situations, like the contest between our expert thief and the man he’s hoping to impress, he lets things drift. Indeed, for a film that barely runs 90 minutes, there’s a lot of fat that could have been trimmed in Dom Hemingway. Sure, the character of Melody (Kerry Condon) lets our lead know that his luck will change, but why give her so much screen time if that’s all she means to the narrative? And Richard E. Grant seems like a gimmick, a throwaway character with a bizarre quirk (he lost his hand in a job a few year back) and little else to do except act as his buddy’s buffer.
In fact, one could safely conclude that Dom Hemingway is a one man show unnecessarily supported by otherwise superfluous add-ons. The daughter, her multiracial son, her side career as a musician - all lead nowhere. Mr. Fontaine’s fabulous house, hotel trophy girlfriend, and hotwired temper all act as little more than expositional components. We never get the sense of Law acting with someone else. Instead, he’s grandstanding, hoping this determined bit of brazenness gets him the notices he otherwise deserves. But the problem here is not the star - though he does chew more scenery than an army of ravenous termites. It’s Shepard. Aside from the obvious question of what an American knows about England and its current culture and crime scene, it’s also clear that he doesn’t understand limits. Thanks to all the histrionics, whatever point his movie is making gets lost.
Unlike other characters you hate to love, Dom Hemingway is one wayward soul who you tolerate hoping such devotion leads somewhere. He’s a blowhard and a braggart with little to show for his inflated sense of self. Sure, in moments of weakness he calls himself all manner of demeaning names, but the end result is not endearment, it’s aggravation. We want to like Dom because…well, we want to like Jude Law. It’s a perfect storm of performer and performance. Had Richard Shepard simply canned the extremes and found a less in your face of telling this story about this particular guy, we’d give him a break. Thanks to his over the top tendencies, Dom Hemingway ends up nothing but a lot of bland bluster.