Actors who direct are a dime-a-dozen, with only a few really translating into anything truly noteworthy. Angelina Jolie’s breakthrough with last year’s Netflix foreign war drama “First They Killed My Father” broke her curse of historically tepid movies, Clint Eastwood has made a new career directing as opposed to acting, while Ron Howard has a damn “Star Wars” anthology film under his belt now. Many don’t know that Stanley Tucci, of mainstream “The Hunger Games” fame, also directs, but not often. Having directed a few films in the late-1990s to mid-2000s, much of his films, however well-received, fell under the radar. Now, with a newfound mainstream notoriety, Tucci returns behind the camera for “Final Portrait,” an admittedly small-scale film that one might not expect from the actor, but one that oozes his flair nonetheless.
The year is 1964, James Lord (Armie Hammer) is an American writer visiting Paris for an art exhibit showcasing Swiss artist Alberto Giaocometti (Geoffrey Rush), when he is asked by Giaocometti to pose for him for a portrait, what is to be his final portrait before his death two years later. What is originally set up as an afternoon affair soon turns into days, which turns into weeks, extending Lord’s stay with every one of Giaocometti’s neurotic artistic tendencies. As his experience continues, Lord gets an inside look at the world in which Giaocometti inhabits, and the people that make the artist as crazy, frustrating and genuine as he was.
“Final Portrait” is a loving portrayal of a lost artist in time, and Tucci pulls it off with the utmost of ease in a cloud of minimalism. At the center of all this doesn’t lie Tucci’s direction, however, but the wonderfully nuanced performances of Rush and Hammer. Hammer, coming off his awards-season high with (what I believe to be the overrated) “Call Me By Your Name,” actually does better work here than in the former. His portrayal of the enigmatic Lord is one that has a lot of layers to it if you know a bit about Lord going into the film, and the life he led. I wish the film had delved into Lord’s homosexuality a bit more, as I found the brief moments of it to really speak wonders into the character, where he finally got to let his hair down a little bit, but I digress. Rush, on the other hand, has a much more out there performance than Hammer, but it’s one that’s quintessentially Rush in its DNA, with a level of fragility and quirkiness (but not self-aware quirkiness) that always does Rush wonders. The chemistry between Hammer and Rush can’t be denied, and it’s one of the better and most touching on-screen friendships I’ve seen in quite some time.
The issue with “Final Portrait” is that while everything is good in the moment, the film lacks the depth to really understand the characters outside of the nuance that the writers bring to the performances. Lord’s homosexuality was a large part of his existence, and without the prior knowledge of it going in, the subtle references to it would make the undiscerning viewer completely oblivious to this major part of his character. Giaocometti doesn’t have much to precede him in the film, also expecting the audience to basically know of his achievements beforehand. Being lucky enough to view this on a studio-provided screener link, I was able to pause the film and look up the history of the characters, but for those viewing it on a less controllable big screen, one might be lost in the characterizations of the performances.
With that, the film also becomes rote and repetitive at a point. At only 90 minutes with credits, it’s a short film, and it never feels longer than its length by any means, but the film’s structure does give way to a lot of familiar territory by the third act. Lord sits, Giaocometti paints, his wife is frustrated with his behavior, his brother enables him, he hates the painting, he starts over, wash, rinse, repeat. The formula works at first, and in its last iteration, the character’s actions give way to a generally satisfying finale. Yet, as the middle section grows longer and longer, the audience becomes increasingly interested in what the story of the characters holds, and the interest in the actual painting, which receives much focus, goes by the wayside.
Stanley Tucci’s direction is undeniably impressive nonetheless. The film is bathed in neutral tones so unsaturated one might think the film is monochromatic at first, but the sense of color and space that Tucci holds is really pleasing to the eye. He stages much of the film like a stage play, to which I almost feel the story would be more suited for. Not much of the film goes beyond the confines of the studio, and much of it is dialogue-based. Having Rush and Hammer play it real time on stage would probably hold a much more moving effect overall. Still, for a director who hasn’t made a film in 10 years, I found his ease behind the camera quite surprising, even if it didn’t do too much out of the ordinary.
And I think that’s what holds “Final Portrait” back from being anything more than “fine,” because it simply doesn’t have that much that sets it apart from other biopics like this. It’s well-made, pleasantly directed and wonderfully acted, but much of it feels inconsequential to actually leaving a lasting impression beyond the day you see the film on. It’s a short watch, and one that doesn’t need to be much longer, and it’s an incredibly pleasant film to spend an afternoon with. If you’re aware of the history of the film, you possibly will find more to like here, if only since the film doesn’t care to explain much in the context of time or characterizations, but even without it, “Final Portrait” is charming. However shallow the film might be on the surface, it’s that charm that “Final Portrait” has to spare that keeps it afloat.
Directed by: Stanley Tucci
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shaloub, Sylvie Testud.
Runtime: 90 minutes
Rating: R for language, some sexual references and nudity.
A Sony Pictures Classics release, Riverstone Pictures presents, in association with HanWay Films, a Potboiler production, in association with Olive Productions, Arsam International and Lowsun Productions, “Final Portrait”