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Sucks: 10.34%

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Max (2002)
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by Robert Flaxman

"Tonight, on 'Before They Were Mass Murderers' - Hitler."
2 stars

It is not hard to see how a movie like Max could go wrong right from conception. The idea that Hitler became the monster that he was because a Jewish art dealer couldn't get through to him in 1918 Munich is dangerous ground; it threatens to imply that a Jew is to blame for Hitler's rabid anti-Semitism, or at least leave ample room for that to be inferred. Fortunately, Max does not allow itself to go wrong in such an easy way - unfortunately, this allows it to go wrong in much more inventive ways.

Max Rothman (John Cusack) is an art dealer in Munich, Germany in 1918. He has recently returned from the war sans his right arm, but his business and the two women in his life - wife Nina (Molly Parker) and mistress Liselore (Leelee Sobieski) - are among the things he has to his name.

In contrast to Max is a thirty-year-old corporal named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor), who came back with arms intact but to no family or money, forced to live in army barracks. He is something of an artist, and brings his work for Max to critique.

Initially, Max semi-dismisses the work, telling Hitler he can go deeper emotionally. Offended, Hitler storms off, but he is drawn back by his desire to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, his Army superiors are trying to convince him to become a public speaker, something Hitler does, but mostly because the army will pay his expenses as long as he does so.

Hitler is basically displayed as a bad public speaker. He merely recites slogans he is fed by his superiors, and repeats the same points over and over again. The more commonly accepted version of this history is that Hitler was a very good public speaker and so could sell just about anything - like anti-Semitism. In Max, the very thing that is thought of as making Hitler a persuasive public speaker - his blistering enthusiasm - is portrayed as useless; the only thing that gets Hitler through to his audience is hitting on their common anti-Semitism.

That's one problem with Max. Another is its characters, none of which is drawn very deep. A film whose story should be obvious going in (Hitler tries to be artist, fails, goes into politics) needs to be character-driven, but Max can't comply with this assignment. Max loves his family - but not so much that he won't cheat on his wife - and he appears to love art, but he's very clinical in his critique and hasn't been any good in his methods since losing his arm. That's about all the audience is given to work with, and the miscasting of Cusack doesn't help.

Technically it's not miscasting; given the lines Max speaks, Cusack is probably the best choice, with that dry, deadpan humor he delivers. In that case, the character was simply created wrong from the beginning. Menno Meyjes (who wrote and directed) makes Max too funny, too flip, as though the film needed a character to make light of his surroundings and that character needed to be the main character. Hitler asks Max at one point if he makes everything a joke; Meyjes is aware, then, of Max's problem, but did not feel compelled to fix it.

What makes Max's attitude so problematic is not necessarily that he makes a lot of jokes - it's that such an attitude is far more emblematic of modern sensibilities than those of a German art dealer in 1918. It doesn't help that Cusack plays the role without the hint of an accent. (Okay, so pretty much no one does, but we're so used to British accents passing for German, Russian, and etc. ones in films that it scarcely makes a difference.) He sticks out like a sore thumb; he's never playing Max Rothman, he's playing Martin Blank, or Rob Gordon. Essentially, he's playing John Cusack. He's a 2002 guy in a 1918 world, and it just doesn't work - Max describes Hitler as a futurist, but it is he who is the anachronism.

The film is also a bit shoddy on the technical aspect - that this is Meyjes' first directorial job should come as a surprise to no one. There are some nice shots in it, but the editing could be tighter than its 106 minutes and yet sometimes is overly abrupt. It is often said that any shot that does not give the viewer some information should not be included in a film. While this is rarely adhered to 100%, Meyjes - and/or editor Chris Wyatt - would have done well to consider it, as far too much of the film just feels extraneous.

In terms of ideas, though, the film could have been edited down to about ten minutes. Much like its presentation of Hitler's public speaking, Max is a lot of the same thing over and over, with a fair amount of runaround used to hide the film's lack of interesting commentary. When approaching a subject like this, a filmmaker needs to bring a new angle to the story; Meyjes doesn't have one. Hitler tries to be an artist, Max doesn't really like his stuff. The only art of Hitler's that Max considers good is not exactly "art" - it's Hitler's semi-architectural designs of a futuristic society (many of which are obvious nods to the eventual Nazi designs) that he wants to show. The idea here, of course, is that Hitler really was better at politics than at art - but we already knew that, and anyway Meyjes has subverted that idea by making Hitler such an uncaptivating public speaker. Furthermore, Hitler never really changes - he's anti-Semitic from the start, just not as openly. When we first see him, he's stating how he believes the "Semitic question" can only be resolved by a government and not the individual, and so if he believes in anti-Semitism at all it's institutionally. Well, there's a surprise - and it's an example of another of Meyjes' mistakes, wherein he decides to make cutesy-poo references to Hitler's later political career. This is a common ploy in movies showing the younger years of someone well-known, but here it's just an error in judgment as Hitler's later years are nothing to smirk at.

From the start, Max needed either to offer radical ideas or do something dramatic with its characters if it hoped to make any sort of important point. Instead, it does neither, and those aren't even the film's only problems.

As films go, Max is hardly excruciating to watch, but in pretty much every other aspect it stands as a miscalculation of drastic proportions.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=6496&reviewer=385
originally posted: 10/11/04 04:45:07
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User Comments

8/04/04 Snickerdoodle Interesting, and you gotta love the dialouge. Come on Hitler, I'll buy you a lemonade. 4 stars
7/25/04 Find The Keys An interesting, ballsy, at times humorous (oddly enough) fictional look into young Hitler. 4 stars
4/15/04 ricky if hitler intersts you, i guess its worth a watch...diff aspect of his character and life. 4 stars
9/19/03 matt so if Hitler had been given a colouring book then 50 million people would have lived? hmmm 3 stars
2/02/03 Bill Kilpatrick A highly provocative, textured film. 5 stars
1/28/03 altera888 Erik, Taylor CAN really act, go and see him in 'Shine' he was great. Forget this drek! 1 stars
1/26/03 Kooler Simply brilliant 5 stars
1/05/03 ajay I thought Noah Taylor was good, but the movie was still very very boring 2 stars
12/28/02 Snake Unwatchable dreck that goes nowhere fast. Just read Jim's review. He nails it. 1 stars
12/28/02 CHEESEBALL leelee is like a freshly laid turd after a night of tequila & tacos. she stinks, she burns 1 stars
12/27/02 willy i give it blood lust 5 stars
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  27-Dec-2002 (R)



Directed by
  Menno Meyjes

Written by
  Menno Meyjes

  John Cusack
  Noah Taylor
  Leelee Sobieski
  Paul Hipp
  Molly Parker
  Judit Hernadi

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