Inspired by both Leo Tolstoy's fictional story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and the true story of CAA mover/shaker Jay Moloney's headline-grabbing demise, ivans xtc is a nasty take on Hollywood's film-biz folk and their playmates. With very little to add beyond the dark visions already relayed by superb recent predecessors like Swimming With Sharks and The Player, this latest skewering--done on a very high flame--may put off insiders and outsiders alike.
It's not just a bunch of flops that will take down a Hollywood player. If he's a young, rich, aggressive Hollywood agent like Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), drugs, sex and cancer will do the job just fine. Director Bernard Rose frames his digitally captured movie with Ivan's death and bookends the tragedy with the crushing strains of Wagner's impossibly dramatic Tristan and Isolde. (In his music-video days, Rose told a reporter he'd love to do a film about Wagner; he did tackle Beethoven in the 1994 Immortal Beloved.)
At Ivan's funeral, we get a first glimpse of those in Ivan's orbit. Danny McTeague (James Merendino), an ambitious young screenwriter/director, has been sidelined by Ivan's agency colleague Barry Oaks (real-life agent Adam Krentzman) in order to make way for the much more established and despicable Don West (Peter Weller), a big star whom the late, not so great Ivan had signed before his death. The flashback that follows reveals Ivan's lurid story, whose Hollywood ending is Woody Allen's worst nightmare. We meet Ivan as a Hollywood winner--cool job at hot agency, BMW convertible, penthouse apartment with great view, tables at the trendiest restaurants, a sexy girlfriend (co-writer Lisa Enos), premieres, and drugs and easy sex at every turn.
Using Danny's script as bait, Ivan becomes a hero when he brings West into the agency. But the euphoria is brief: Ivan learns soon after that he has advanced lung cancer. He guards his secret, but consults a shrink. Except for the loving attention he gives his dog (one of the film's few and wonderful soft spots), the dying Ivan sinks into despair. Family and lover are brushed aside in favor of drugs and two high-priced call girls in whom he confides. Only when Ivan pays his final visit to the hospital is there any hint of human-to-human love and compassion. It's a nurse who makes this final, emotional connection to the tragic Hollywood player.
ivans xtc displays the good and bad of digital capture. On the positive front, Rose intermittently achieves poetry and an immediate reality with the unobtrusive digital equipment. On the negative side, the film sometimes looks sloppy and amateurish.
The acting is fine, especially Weller as the vulgar, foul-mouthed star, and Rose and Enos' script does the job. Often brave in its extremes, the film is sometimes uncomfortably confessional, as if reflecting the filmmaker's personal rage at the industry and its abominable behavior. There are those who might experience ivans xtc as a nasty fly-on-the-wall look at Hollywood types and their motives. But lay audiences, immune to the schadenfreude that reportedly infects the Left Coast film community, may regard the movie as an unrelieved bummer, a possibility that might have kept this two-year-old picture from reaching big screens sooner.