Movie Reviews

Review: “James White” Cries At Us, Not With Us

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James, a 21-year-old New Yorker, struggles to take control of his self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges.

The more films I watch from both low and high culture, the more steadfast I become in my belief that all films are exploitation movies. Exploitation movies typically take sex and/or violence and show it in lurid detail for the sole and obvious purpose of making money. But really the vast majority of films exist to make money, and most every film is exploiting some type of real life pain in its quest to entertain the audience. The purpose can be more complicated than solely to bring in the moola, but the formula remains generally the same. James White, Josh Mond’s debut feature, is very much exploiting its subject matter. A movie about a young man taking care of his mother as she dies of cancer, it feels very much like a cathartic film. But it is also torture. This is a Sad Movie. It’s meant for people who are on the hunt for a good cry. I remember reading a New Yorker article about the phenomenon of people looking for tear jerking literature. Many even recommended the books in Amazon.com reviews for being able to upset them so. I assume these people would look for the same in their movies, and really, it is good to cry. Crying all day and night, I can assure you, is exhausting, but every now and then turning on the water works is good for cleaning out the cobwebs.

James White didn’t get me to cry, however, mainly because it’s carousel of cancer related drama was repetitive, predictable, and somewhat torturous to watch. It’s unfortunate because the other major elements of James White, mainly the titular character, James, who is played with reckless abandon by Christopher Abbott in a performance that reminded me of Brando’s chest thumping gorilla act as Stanley Kowalski, are ripe for a yummy picture pie. James is a wild child of the New York City nightlife. He’s twenty-something, paunchy, ruggedly handsome, not working, and temperamental to the point of bad boy-ism. The constant closeups totally focused on James make us want to get inside him, to understand why such a jerk is also so irresistible. It’s the age-old question I’ve been asking ever since I tried the Manhattan nightlife scene and was spit out like a flavorless wad of gum. I noticed people like James White got a lot more out of that life than I did, and I became friends with some of them, too, despite also hating them.

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But James isn’t made out to be the complicated soul with a predilection to punch. Instead he’s apologized for as a sufferer of a bad parent (his absent father has already passed away in the beginning of the film) and is struggling to get a grip on life while taking care of his dying mother (played angelically by Cynthia Nixon). Carrying mom to the bathroom and listening to her body spill out all kinds of fluids should win any boy Son of the Year, and that’s what James is willing to do. He loves her and she loves him. And while that love is poignant, it’s also a little bit flat.

James White makes James “likeable” instead of making him human. For all his anger issues, his inability to get a job, his minor irresponsibility in taking care of his mother, it is more than understandable given the circumstances. James’ faults are made easily forgivable, and therefore aren’t interesting or challenging. Many people I’ve talked to groan at the challenge of sympathizing with a character who is too unlikeable to be “likeable.” It is a much richer experience to be challenged rather than patronized. The cartoonist Roz Chast’s memoir Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is freakishly honest about the burden of taking care of her elderly parents in their last years of life. The result isn’t disgust for Chast, but a deep emotional bond with her, a level of universality that is rarely ever reached.

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James White doesn’t go for all that. It doesn’t challenge us intellectually. And that’s fine. But that’s where I get to the idea of exploitation. Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers is an agonizing cinematic experience, in a good way. Michael Haneke’s Amour is a slow burn that pays off in a dark, morally ambiguous twist. Both of these films deal with similar situations of sickness, family, love, death, and burden. I’d argue they, too, are exploitative of their subject matter. And they are very good films (Bergman’s is one of the best ever, and Haneke’s solid, though very well received when it released in 2012). Mond’s James White is a far cry from Bergman or Haneke, but it shares in their exploitative ways, only to much less success, even if it garners more tears.

 

  • Acting - 7/10
    7/10
  • Cinematography - 6/10
    6/10
  • Plot/Screenplay - 4/10
    4/10
  • Setting/Theme - 4/10
    4/10
  • Buyability - 2/10
    2/10
  • Recyclability - 1/10
    1/10
Overall
4/10
4/10
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