Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: "Rush" is Stuck in Second Gear

Left to right: Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl
It is an exciting time in movies, largely because we are officially in Oscar Buzz season. While we had some early trails in August, director Ron Howard's Rush kicks off endless weeks of new contenders and some that are still to surprise us. None would seem more surprising to be in the race than a Formula One Racing film that pits two rivals against each other and turns the tale of the need for speed into becoming competitive soul mates. While the automotives may make this seem like just an average racing movie, it has more going for it. 

The biggest appeal about Rush is not the racing at all. It is the rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) as they race against each other for the top prize. The realization that racing is a competition beloved for being dangerous and having annual deaths is the big thrill that these two get out of it. However, as the journey continues, it will also reveal that in times of peril, the two motivate each other in unexpected ways to triumph.

The film has its share of disasters, and it is the personal moments that click. Whether Lauda is forced to get a skin graft or Hunt is playfully making fun of his opponent, there is a sense of camaraderie that gives the film an easy, fun feel. These are just people who want to race, and they don't let petty problems get in their way. All that they need is the honor. Where Lauda is the safe, stay at home type, Hunt parties it up and doesn't leave a single groupie away from his bed. It is a fantastical world, and one that is presented with a nostalgic tinge of fun and a Hans Zimmer score that recalls rocking tunes of the era.

The direction is also pretty solid, as Howard manages to convey emotion and action through visual tricks. Besides the tinge that makes everything feel time specific, he also has the capability to turn the races into some of the best shot, intense scenes in the film. We see the cyllinders wind up and the rain pour on windshields as they maneuver through course after course. There's a sense of cohesion that is a pleasant change of pace from most films involving racing. It lacks gimmicks and instead goes for the intensity in ways that leaves it suspicious all the way until the end.

Despite all of the heart and passion of the performances, the film itself is a real drag. As a competition film about racing, it is expected to exploit cars to the nth degree. It shows race after race in varying countries, but with the film clocking at over two hours, these scenes become monotonous and dull. Even in the finale when one of them is called to be triumphant, it feels predictable largely because the film revolves around these two and the glory of winning the Grand Prix. 

It isn't about their relationships with their girlfriends, which seem jarring. The philosophy of the film is also banal and stupid beyond belief, as racing seems to be their sustenance for life. Their inability to live a normal life with a normal job almost comes across as pathetic and their repetitive nature of acknowledging the danger just makes the payoff more underwhelming. This film wants to be hardcore and all about adrenaline, but it doesn't feel like more than a bunch of scenes taped together to show how cars move around a track. Even when the characters are in conversation, it seems to just be about how fast they can go. There is no personality or anything to latch onto. Even with the crucial turn in the story involving the skin graft, it just feels expected and lacks sympathy, notably as the driver is a bonehead and continues racing despite almost dying.

Rush is an overlong film that could have been better if cut down to 90 minutes. It may feature solid performances by Bruhl and Hemsworth, but it also features great direction by Howard that gets bogged down by mundane race scenes and constant reminders in the script that the subject is nonsense. Even when the film is called upon to be emotional, it is bogged down by the laws of its universe, which are so dumb that it almost makes the happy ending feel like a rip-off. The story of two competitors is something that has moments of inspiration here, but should have been better handled.

I am not entirely sure anymore how this film will go. As two of my pre-predictions have backed out of the race (The Wolf of Wall Street, Foxcatcher), more films are capable of sliding into the 5-10 scale. As it stands, I feel like the film is too underwhelming to actually be serious for the top position, but considering the director and the effort, I wouldn't be surprised if this sneaked into the race. I wouldn't necessarily call it one of the best of the batch, but it does have plenty of technical merit to compensate for its bloated presence.

I don't know that Howard is capable of a Best Director nod either, though I wouldn't be surprised if he does. Having been nominated several times before, he delivers again with a film that looks good. The race scenes are well shot and pack intensity and clearness that is unexpected. It is yet to be seen what the competing films will present us with, but if the Academy still has a Ron Howard bias, I figure that this would be as good of a film as any to hop on. It looks slick and has a fun intention, so who knows.

The only other main category that could possibly be considered is Best Supporting Actor for Daniel Bruhl, who was probably the best part of the movie. His quiet demeanor and sudden change of character three quarters through the film is some of the easiest bait that this film could have with acting nominations. While the only logical next step to a guaranteed nomination would be if his character died, the Academy loves nominating people who played real people. Lauda is a real person, and you almost get a sense that Bruhl is a fully fleshed out character in this story. His sincere monologue at the end almost makes up for a lot of the film's flaws, but it also just shows why he was the crux of the story.

Rush is probably not going to be a film that I praise as the season goes on, but will begrudgingly keep bringing up in order to keep all contenders in place. Like Silver Linings Playbook, I actually can't stand it, but unlike it, I find some merit here that is worth acknowledging and as time goes on, I'll make sure to continue to bring it up and see how the film does against competing films. I still think that 12 Years a Slave will dominate, but I'm looking forward to the moment when there's one out there capable of overthrowing it, even in the slightest.

Is Rush better than I give it credit for? Is Daniel Bruhl capable of a Best Supporting Actor nomination? Will the film succeed largely on the bias towards Ron Howard?

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