Movie Review by Stephen Doyle
Starring: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen
Director: Menno Meyjes
MAX has the kind of twisted and unusual concept behind it that would make Charlie Kaufman proud. It is always helpful to indicate near the beginning of a review what genre the movie falls into, but like a Kaufman film, MAX refuses to be classified – black comedy, historical drama, tragedy? You will just have to decide for yourself.
MAX follows the path of two disparate German characters, who meet and form an unlikely alliance in Munich, Germany in 1918. The main character is the fictitious eponymous hero of the film, Max Rothman (John Cusack). He is a popular and opulent Jew who has returned from World War I minus his right arm. Are his spirits dampened over his loss? No, his energy and optimism are as boundless as ever, as he runs his own exhibition centre for modern art in an unused train station.
Meanwhile, a shady youth (Noah Taylor) is wandering the streets of Munich despairingly and aimlessly. He too has just returned from the war. He is an amateur painter and after a chance encounter with Max he introduces himself as Adolf Hitler. The young man soon reveals himself to be an intensely unlikeable figure, as well as a clear anti-Semite, and yet the Jewish Max, as usual defying convention, takes an interest in the unknown soldier and becomes his unofficial mentor and benefactor.
MAX is a daring and unusual film, which just manages to work, mostly because it is all brought to life so enthusiastically by the cast and first time director Menno Meyjes, who also wrote the screenplay. Cusack gives an iconic and charismatic performance as the one-armed Max. Noah Taylor, probably best known for playing the young David Helfgot in SHINE, does well bringing all of the young Hitler’s notorious attributes to life – his aloofness, his ascetic regime (he would not touch alcohol, cigarettes or caffeine), his dislike of modernism and his anti-semitism. He is a magnificent grotesque, like something from the pages of a Balzac novel, yet history attests to the fact that this is what the future Fuhrer was indeed like, ‘a psychopath who somehow found his way from a padded cell to Potsdam’, as Malcolm Muggeridge once described him.
Menno Meyjes previous credits include writing the screenplays for THE COLOUR PURPLE and THE EMPIRE OF THE SUN, but this is his first film as director. He directs with verve. A lot of the editing, camera-work and photography caused my ears to prick up, as did the way he toys around with sounds and noises on the soundtrack. For example, the final sequence, culminating in a birdseye shot of a market place and it’s neighbouring park, is outstanding, made more poignant by the way a character’s laboured breathing is added to the soundtrack.
MAX is a thought-provoking piece of cinema which offers many perverse pleasures. The orchestral score is rich and varied, shifting between slinky jazzy riffs a la Stravinsky, and less ironic, more obvious romantic sections. The pace does drag at times, mostly when telling Max’s story, as his tale is so much less compelling than Hitler’s. But MAX remains an unusual delight.