Saturday, December 13, 2008

Film Review: What Doesn't Kill You

What Doesn't Kill You
Directed by Brian Goodman
Released December 12, 2008

Near the beginning of last year’s critical hit “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” there’s a very realistic, memorable scene set at a suburban strip mall. Ethan Hawke and an accomplice drive up to the front of a store in broad daylight, and commit a robbery that goes horribly wrong. The scene doesn’t quite resolve itself, at least not before the movie pulls a time-shift, and it’s only much later in the film that the subsequent events are revealed. Brian Goodman’s new film “What Doesn’t Kill You,” which also takes its title from part of an adage, opens with a sequence entirely reminiscent of the aforementioned one, and it even features Ethan Hawke in a similar role. These two movies should, however, not be confused with each other. Sidney Lumet’s 2007 film is an impressive tour de force, while Goodman’s movie is a spotty, disappointing effort that lacks finesse.

“What Doesn’t Kill You” is your typical gangster tale, which unapologetically turns to classic Scorsese characters to craft its own personalities. Hawke swaggers around self-assuredly, portraying the same kind of loose cannon sidekick Robert DeNiro used to play before he became a leading man. While it’s true that all gangster movies do look alike, there’s no compelling reason to see this one. The story, about two South Boston buddies whose mob connections lead them to hardships and even prison stretches, is altogether aimless. The story doesn’t have a coherent flow, and it all ends at a random point, providing little closure and zero satisfaction. The credits note that the film is a based on a true story, but the crucial misstep made by the creative team is that it shouldn’t matter to audiences – the story still needs to be interesting, and some dramatic narrative structure needs to drive it along.

Lead actor Mark Ruffalo, talented as he may be, can’t play the bad boy. He’s shown skill in movies where he’s an honorable, nice do-gooder like “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Collateral,” “Blindness,” and (maybe) even “13 Going on 30.” His resumé certainly shouldn’t put him at the top of the list to play a drug-addicted wannabe gangster struggling to reform his habits. The emphasis on the Boston setting here is also rather painful with the visible deliberate efforts all the actors make to put on Boston accents, especially Hawke and Amanda Peet, who plays Ruffalo’s wife. It’s only Boston native Donnie Wahlberg, in a minor supporting role, who doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb whenever he speaks. This is actor Brian Goodman’s first time behind the camera, and while the movie looks professional enough, it shows that he doesn’t have experience writing or directing. “What Doesn’t Kill You” is a clear imitation of Martin Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, and Robert DeNiro, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but this movie is hardly a fitting tribute to the gangster legacy.

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