The Kid Stays in the Picture could be described as the first mockumentary about a real person. Our confidence in its fundamentally fascinating story is undermined (intentionally, it seems) by the movies elaborate high-tech visual gloss, which uses digital technology to cook the photographic record of the career of Robert Evans. As a Boy Wonder studio chief and independent producer, Evans was a central figure in the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s. (His credits include Chinatown and Marathon Man, The Godfather and Popeye.) The documentary is often dazzling, in a Ken Burns--meets--MTV sort of way, but its hard to know how to react to the incessant multiplane manipulations of images that have been colorized in ironic, romantic pastels, and come across as the pictorial equivalent of heavy sarcasm, a series of stage winks to the audience.
The filmmakers, Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein (1999 Oscar nominees for the boxing documentary On the Ropes), may have been reaching for an expressive visual equivalent of the narrative first person, a technique for presenting past events not as they actually occurred but as Evans recalls them. Which makes sense, in a way, because the picture is an adaptation of his 1994 autobiography -- or, to be precise, of the cult-classic audio version he recorded a year later, in an entertaining, gravel-throated pastiche of hard-boiled movie lingo, laced with blowhard self-help aphorisms (Luck is when opportunity meets preparation, Planning is for the poor). Evans wall-to-wall voice-over is a condensation of the famous talking book, and even if (as the constantly shifting, self-revising images suggest) the famous producer is being tagged by Morgen and Burstein as an unreliable witness, a strong sense of his personality comes through.
Evans achieved his legendary eminence as the youngest production chief at a major Hollywood studio not by clawing his way up through the ranks, but in one fell swoop. He got his first studio job for the reason he got his first acting gig a decade earlier, playing the original Boy Wonder mogul, Irving Thalberg, opposite James Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957): because somebody sized him up and decided that he looked and spoke and carried himself like a producer. Evans career took a fairly spectacular nosedive in the 80s, but the last third of The Kid Stays in the Picture, which documents his fall and eventual semirehabilitation, feels banal. It is a law of nature that nobody stays on top forever. The really distinctive feature in Evans case was that he plummeted from such a great height. And the only question worth asking is whether he deserved to be up there in the first place.
At one point in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans recalls badgering a reluctant Henry Kissinger to attend the premiere of The Godfather -- during what turned out to be the run-up to the bombing of Cambodia. Evans seems to be telling this story against himself: Can you believe that I was once so far gone in Hollywood that I thought my movie was more important than a war? But there is also a hint in the story of a lingering boyish pride in his own audacity -- and, on the evidence, the pride is not entirely misplaced. Critic David Thomson has suggested that, in his prime, Evans smile had the un-shy self-love of a man seeing his own dazzle in the mirror. But these scenes of Robert Evans in full cry offer us a fleeting glimpse of something more significant, of a man who had a gift amounting to genius for taking surreal levels of overnight success in stride, who could breathe easily and keep a cool head even at the highest altitudes. Hes a fascinating character, and deserves a better vehicle than this facetious smirk of a movie.
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE | Directed by BRETT MORGEN and NANETTE BURSTEIN | Written by MORGEN | Adapted from the book by ROBERT EVANS | Produced by MORGEN, BURSTEIN and GRAYDON CARTER | Released by USA Films | At Laemmles Sunset 5, Landmark Regent
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