REVIEW: The Two Faces of January

18 06 2014

two_faces_of_january_ver5Los Angeles Film Festival

Hossein Amini makes his feature film debut by directing an adaptation of “The Two Faces of January,” an adaptation of a novel by “The Talented Mr. Ripley” author Patricia Highsmith. The film is understandably a natural cousin to Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated 1999 dramatic thriller made from the latter of the aforementioned books. Amini did not, however, have to be so hopelessly indebted to the playbook that made that film work.

That’s not to say he made a carbon-copy; the two stories are very different. “Ripley” has shades of “The Great Gatsby” as it explores the psychology of the jaded upper class and one ambitious upstart whose desire to join them turns dangerous. “January,” on the other hand, is much more about the events and their sequence. There’s far less complex psychology or layered characterization to be found as a result.

The film’s three leads each play more of a type than a person. Oscar Isaac’s expatriate tour guide Rydal is quite a bit like Matt Damon’s Ripley but played with a penchant for larceny. He stumbles upon the MacFarlands, an American couple visiting Eastern Europe, and finds himself hopelessly drawn towards them.

Kirsten Dunst, as Collette MacFarland, has even less to do. She’s little more than an item for a childish game of tug-of-war between Rydal and her husband Chester, played by Viggo Mortensen. The film takes place in the early 1960s, and it would have been refreshing to see Dunst channel a screen icon of the time (say, Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh) to lend the film the feel of the period. But alas, Dunst retains the same sort of turn-of-the-millennium acting sensibility she normally brings to a part.

Mortensen also does a familiar act, although for him, what it recalls is his superb work in 2005’s “A History of Violence.” He’s great at playing collected everymen who prove themselves shockingly capable of savage outbursts, though it’s somewhat less exciting as a repeat in “The Two Faces of January.” His Chester sets the film in motion by retaliating brutally against an investigator sent on behalf of scorned clients, and he later carries the film by engaging in a battle of wits with Isaac’s Rydal.

Though Amini can get his actors to engage with each other, his direction doesn’t quite provide the spark necessary to light the fuse of the film. The tension dissipates quickly after the precipitating event of the film and then devolves into histrionics and cliches. Formulaic action film, beautiful European backdrop – sounds far less like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and more like “The American.” Or dare I even say it … the much reviled (yet inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated) “The Tourist.”  C+2stars

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