Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), a superagent at a talent agency with more than a passing resemblance to CAA, is a big, bluff charmer with a boyish grin, a shiny blond girlfriend with no hips, and a gift for reeling in top-drawer clients that gets him standing ovations from admiring colleagues. As agents go, Ivan is a decent enough fellow — he’s nice to dogs and receptionists — but his goal in life is to hang with Hollywood nobility, which means he‘s not above dumping a B-list screenwriter in order to cut a deal with mega-star Don West (Peter Weller, doing a creditable James Woods), a coke-snorting homophobe with a habit of waving guns around at impromptu orgies. The best justification Ivan can offer his disapproving artist father (played by the sculptor Robert Graham, who is married to Danny’s sister Anjelica) for dwelling in this soul-killing world is that it‘s his world — yet he seems adrift in it. When, after a routine physical, his doctor asks him to come in for a consult and bring a friend with him, Ivan is shocked to discover he has no one to bring; even his secretary’s too busy. And when he learns that a chest X-ray has turned up a spot on his lung that will kill him sooner rather than later, he has nowhere to turn for comfort but to his Labrador retriever, a pile of cancer self-help manuals, and a couple of hookers with dope habits on a par with his own. The more Ivan hungers for human contact, the more his world shrinks.
In other words, Tolstoy. No, really: ivans xtc. is based on Leo Tolstoy‘s famous short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about a faceless bureaucrat who, having traded away his soul for a comfortable life of social climbing in the wasteland of czarist Russia’s judicial system, finds himself unequal to the task of dying before his time. Told with passionate austerity, Ivan Ilyich offers harrowing testimony of the crippling loneliness and alienation that come with conformity to an arid and spiritless life. The story terrifies and finally exalts the reader; its power flows directly from the fact that Ilyich is an unremarkable man living an unremarkable life (his worst vice is slipping out for a rubber of bridge with his fellow functionaries) and dying a death virtually unremarked by any but his author and a devoted servant.
Ivans xtc. is directed by Bernard Rose (he made the successful horror film Candyman and the bombastic Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved) from an adaptation he co-wrote with his girlfriend, Lisa Enos, who also produced and stars as Ivan‘s feckless lover. Though the movie keeps faith with Tolstoy’s structure — it begins and ends on Ivan‘s deathbed, while in between he swings wildly from hope to rage to despair, and clings desperately to bad company — ivans xtc. is a more excitable creature altogether. Given its milieu, it should be: The mood is Wagnerian, the visual style — it was digitally shot with a hand-held camera — is lyrical and grainily impressionistic, designed to evoke a dark, desolate and unreliable Los Angeles even in the agency’s plush interiors. Ivan Beckman is no Everyman: The character was inspired by Jay Moloney, an heir apparent to CAA‘s Michael Ovitz (and, at one time, Rose’s agent) who hanged himself in a hotel room after being fired for cocaine addiction.
To the degree that ivans xtc. works, it‘s THANKS to Huston’s revelatory performance. Though the actor and sometime director is the son of John Huston, to look at him you‘d think he’d been swapped as a baby at some poolside party — with his fleshy cheeks, labile mouth and unruly lion‘s head, he looks like the young Orson Welles, and he’s simply terrific as Ivan, a man without purpose or passion, whose only skill is ingratiation. For all his backslapping bonhomie, there‘s something slack and hapless about Huston’s Ivan, as if he‘d wandered into his velvet prison by accident and, for lack of any imaginative alternative, persuaded himself to call it home until it collapses on him. Even then, he compulsively plays in its ruins — until mortality forces on him a kind of enlightenment, and a human fellowship he’s denied all his life.
The final scenes of the movie, in which a nurse tenderly ministers to Ivan as his life ebbs away, are deeply moving. Yet one is nagged throughout ivans xtc. by the feeling that one is being set up to see Ivan not only as a special case but as a victim — like his creator — of Hollywood. Hell hath no fury like a director scorned: In his film journal, Rose fumes over having been unceremoniously fired off the set of his last two films, Anna Karenina and The Thief of Always. Doubtless his experience wasn‘t fun, but it was no more and no less of a shaft than that suffered by any artsy filmmaker who takes his chances with the studios. And while many a great work of art has been motivated by bile — Tolstoy himself bestowed on Ivan Ilyich a callow, querulous wife who surely mirrored his perception of his own unhappy marriage — righteous anger, when coupled with an overdeveloped sense of personal injury, curdles into a steady whine. Aside from his nurses, Ivan is the only remotely sympathetic character in a world populated by heedless opportunists (the vultures are circling for Ivan’s job long before the body is cold) and degenerates. That several industry types had enough of a sense of humor to agree to play themselves in the movie ought to have signaled to Rose the existence of humanoid life on planet Hollywood. Certainly it suggests that he remains more of an insider than he lets on. But that hasn‘t stopped him from hauling out of storage the usual images of drug-stoked bacchanals and talentless hangers-on — so eager is Ivan’s on-the-make girlfriend to get her screenplay (titled Me, Myself and I) noticed by Don West that, ensconced in his limo with Ivan helplessly looking on, she hikes up her dress and proffers a bare thigh on which to do a line of coke. Tolstoy‘s Ivan is surrounded by people just like him — that’s the point. Ivan Beckman is the only human on Mars.
Tolstoy‘s story ends on a note of ecstasy, a defining and timeless moment in which the dying man finally achieves what he has always lacked — an inner life and a higher authority. Ivan Beckman’s ecstasy, however affecting, feels facile and unearned, the consequence more of a blessed release from Hollywood than of any internal epiphany. The Death of Ivan Ilyich asks, on a universal scale, what a man may expect from his death if he lives a meaningless life. In the end, I‘m not sure that ivans xtc. asks much more than why anyone would want to work at CAA.