Saturday, January 31, 2015
Whiplash is a film about greatness, about pushing mere talent into a realm where one’s name is spoken with hushed reverence. Writer/director Damien Chazelle brought home top prize from the Sundance Film Festival last year for a film that, thanks in large part to a likely Oscar-winning performance by J.K. Simmons, has emerged as one of the unexpected success stories of the past year. Chazelle’s next project is rumored to star Emma Watson, so he is well on his way. Whiplash is riveting viewing thanks to Simmons and co-star Miles Teller, but what’s really going on here? Chazelle’s script wants to interrogate the idea that greatness is only reached through punishing work, but the film goes wrong thanks to the certainty with which it answers its own questions.
Andrew (Teller) is a jazz drummer and a first-year student at a prestigious New York music conservatory, the kind of place where students can be found in practice rooms at any hour. There isn’t much else to Andrew’s life except for revival house movies with his gentle father (Paul Reiser) and a discerning taste in pizza. Andrew is an underwritten character, it isn’t clear how his obsession with jazz began since no one in his life seems to care a whit about the music, but Miles Teller does a credible job of filling out the role. Teller keeps Andrew’s need to be acknowledged bubbling just below the surface, and Andrew’s love for the music comes across so strongly that his awkward breakup with the sweet Nicole (Melissa Benoist) almost seems like a logical move. At the center of Whiplash is Andrew’s relationship with the bullying Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher leads the school’s top-flight jazz band, and his singling out of Andrew begins a cycle that the film views as a progression towards Andrew’s maturation as an artist. J.K. Simmons is a veteran supporting actor, used to being part of an ensemble, and the fact that he doesn’t overplay Fletcher’s arias of dissatisfaction makes the performance all the more terrifying. Fletcher is the kind of showy role Oscar voters love, but Simmons still had to do the work.
Fletcher’s view is that only by pushing students past what might ordinarily be expected can true greatness be achieved. In this context “pushing” means verbal and physical abuse, swearing and throwing things. At no point in Whiplash is Fletcher shown teaching anything to anyone, and Andrew’s musical growth is presented in a series of scenes at rehearsals and competitions. It’s telling that Fletcher’s biggest complaint about Andrew and his rival drummers is that they don’t play fast enough. There’s no sense of Andrew learning any subtlety or craft, only repeated sequences of him hammering away at his kit with a bloody insistence. I do mean bloody. The film falls apart when Fletcher is forced to deal with consequences of his actions and then seems to choose revenge over an opportunity for professional success. Andrew gets his measure of triumph, but Chazelle cuts to the concerned gaze of his father as if to suggest that the future of someone who only seems alive behind a drum kit is far from guaranteed. Whiplash creates compelling characters and then doesn’t know quite what to do with them, and as good as the actors are the mixed messages of the script prevent a confident film from finding its swing.