Film Review: Two Jacks

Tolstoy adaptation set in 1990s and modern-day Hollywood, as a film director and his film-director son each spend a tempestuous day.

The Tolstoy story "Two Hussars" on which this film is based focuses on the willful self-deception we use to get through the drudgery, even the gilded drudgery, of life—oh, that wacky Tolstoy! But writer-director Bernard Rose's fourth adaptation of the Russian author's work—following Anna Karenina (1997), Ivans XTC (2002) and The Kreutzer Sonata (2008)—seems more fascinated by the charisma of bad behavior. While that may or may not be a more superficial theme, it's one that leaves the fitfully crafted Two Jacks an exercise in exasperation.

The movie begins with yet another indie-film opening narration that either states the obvious or gives us backstory that a film should fill in cinematically. It continues with some of the most insipidly swooning doormat women of any movie made after 1960 and culminates with two characters' career-destroying stupidity—something not in the 1856 original.

Danny Huston salvages things somewhat with an utterly committed, smarmy snake of a performance as Jack Hussar, a once great movie director who's returned to Los Angeles cash-poor but with a tuxedo in his suitcase. In the course of a momentous day, the manipulative rogue connects with producer wannabe Brad (Dave Pressler); attends a party where he seduces Brad's beautiful and wealthy sister Diana (Sienna Miller), of whom we know nothing else; lines up financing for his next movie by winning a poker game against an old producer nemesis, (Richard Portnow, who also narrates); picks up another woman, singer Dana (Izabella Miko), at an after-party; and leaves town to shoot his movie on location in Africa.

Twenty years later, Diana (Jacqueline Bisset) and her daughter Lily (Rosie Fellner), who was a child that long-ago night, learn from one of Lily's friends that director Jack Hussar Jr. (Jack Huston, Danny's nephew) is in town to direct his first movie. Without knowing anything about him other than his picture on a cell-phone, Lily is as completely, droolingly enamored as her mother was for Jack Sr. Hussar fils swans into town with his screenwriter, Paul (Guy Burnet), and accepts an invitation for them to stay at Diana and Lily's guest house. Disaster ensues with another woman, Laura (Scarlett Kapella), a would-be actress the producer foists on Junior, who quite literally drops her panties for the young man. All this is also in the course of a day.

The HD-video camerawork is confounding. The 1990s sequence is desaturated to more or less black-and-white, sometimes with glimmers of colors, sometimes with different shots in the same scene shifting from color to black-and-white in a way that doesn't seem deliberate—and if deliberate, pointless. In at least three moments, the camera actually goes of focus and refocuses, and not in an artsy, cinéma-vérité way but in a boom-mike-in-the-frame way.

Granted, the Tolstoy story had the benefit of internal monologues that clarified motivations and impulses. But a good film finds ways of doing this through gesture, expression and other artful ways. This is not a good film.