Finding Neverland & The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

  • Le Johnny Depp
  • A Quick Geoffrey Rush to the Head
  • Oscar/Emmy Baiting

Directed by Two Guys You Wouldn't Expect

"One would think that the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel would have a larger budget. But all that money went to Mike Ovitz's vacation home. Sorry, children."
Playing Dress-Up and Make-Believe

They say art comes from pain. The Filmsnobs - recently anointed as artists by the Kansas City Star - know this. I burnt cigarettes into my forearm while reminiscing about my childhood in the local orphanage before writing a review on Christmas with the Kranks. Shimes will sometimes slit the tips of his fingers with a razor blade before logging onto the Filmsnobs Web Journal. This is the pain that fuels Filmsnobs. For other artists throughout the ages, the pain comes in different forms and the art comes from different inspiration. Two new films - Marc Forster's Finding Neverland and Stephen Hopkin's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers look at completely different artists with rather similar approaches to their craft. Unfortunately, the takes on J.M. Barrie and Peter Sellers respectively are only intermittently successful. Neverland's subject seems elusive with no substantive weight put behind the material. And Peter Seller's life is portrayed quite vividly as complete fantasy while no proper explanation is offered for his contributions to comedy. Both films have received massive accolades, including Neverland being named Best Film of 2004 by the National Board of Review. So this hurts for me to write this. As a matter of fact, you have no idea how much this hurts as I write this. (Searing burring sound comes from the background.)

Finding Neverland. The story of Peter Pan has held up for a century with multiple adaptations in a multitude of formats with losing its luster and powerful innocence. Surely, there is an interesting story about its author J.M. Barrie and the story's inception and evolution. Finding Neverland aspires to do something interesting buts ends up telling a tired, manipulative, and sappy tale about wide-eyed inspiration and the pain of adulthood. Making this worse is the on-screen contributions of Oscar heavyweights such as Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, and Julie Christie who seems abandoned by the promise of the material. More horribly, Marc Forster uses this odd and toothless film to follow-up his powerful Monster's Ball, a film about alienation, family horror, and race boundaries. Neverland begins in 1903 London as J.M. Barrie's (Depp) new play is opening to eye-rolling and snoozing. Predictably, the show is a dud. Producer Charles Frohman (Hoffman) is upset but not nearly despondent as Barrie. Already a reclusive Scotsman, Barrie shrinks further away from the theater scene and from his social-climbing wife Mary (Radha Mitchell, developing a knack for the icy-wife role). One day, Barrie is in the park begins making up stories for some children he meets. Jack, Michael and George Davies (Joe Prospero, Luke Spill and Nick Roud) are delighted by the make-believe this man creates. Their brother Peter (Freddie Highmore) is not but Barrie is convinced to win him over. This all seems harmless enough. Depp plays Barrie as a charmed story weaver; a man enchanted by his audience's radiance. The boys are the children of Sylvia Davies (Winslet), the widow of a wealthy socialite. Sylvia is one of those Doomed Beauties of Cinema. Right after her ravishing and glowing introduction, she begins to cough and foreshadow a sad ending. Barrie is taken by the family. Creepily, Barrie begins going over to the Davies house and playing cowboys and Indians as well as other forms of dress-up with the boys. Sylvia finds this delightful, as though the boys have a new-found father figure. Mary and Sylvia's mother-in-law Emma (Christie) find it strange that this grown and married man is spending so much time with these children. As a matter of fact, I am inclined to agree with them. Perhaps it's the time I live in, but watching Barrie with these kids reminds me of another artist who lives in Neverland and plays with little kids. Barrie says that his actions are innocent and essentially accuses these women of artistic treachery. The high-pitched whines of Michael Jackson on South Park - "That is ignorant. Just ignorant "- are recalled. Neverland wants to depict Mary and Emma as aloof bitches, but they seem reasonable and rationale in the context of the story. Playtime with the kids blossoms into the idea of orphan children gaining the ability to stay young forever. Barrie writes Peter Pan and sells the idea to Frohman. As the stage version evolves, Barrie's home life falls apart as he becomes more immersed with the Davies family. By the end, the play is a hit, tragedy strikes, and everyone learns that childhood innocence is a real inspiration.

And that is perfectly fine. It is merely fine. Finding Neverland is never short of sweet and light-hearted moments. My favorite scene in the film is during Peter Pan's opening. Fearing the stuffy adults who normally attend play premieres would not truly appreciate the magic of the story, Barrie reserves twenty-five seats in the audience for some local orphans. Their delighted and wondrous expressions show how joyous the play really is to the youthful spirit. But this is the most weight that Finding Neverland musters. The most interesting aspects of Barrie's character are quickly introduced and just as quickly dismissed. Barrie tells a story about his sad childhood and how he created Neverland in his mind as a way of escaping the sorrow of his family. Yet, the story still paints the Davies children as the only inspiration for the story. As though Barrie's childhood trauma was too dark for the film to explore.When one analyzes Peter Pan, there are some dark corners to the story and some explanation for their inspiration would elicit more than a little curiosity. The Lost Boys, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell's near death all seem complicated,difficult, and just a bit fascinating. I wanted this film to offer something more than a passive hypothesis. A film that effectively explores the darker and adult themes of Peter Pan is Mike Newell's An Awfully Big Adventure, where director Hugh Grant and Captain Hook actor Alan Rickman compete for the virginity of the girl playing Wendy. That film is almost equally creepy, but far more textured and deeper than Neverland. The Davies children, the loss of their father, and Barrie using their sadness is a peculiar deviation from the actual events. The Davies patriarch was still alive, kicking, and around when Barrie befriended the children. Even if the filmmakers wanted to avoid Barrie's psychology or the story of Peter Pan, wouldn't it have been interested to see how the husband/father responded to this guy hanging around. But this is just one of many lost opportunities Forster by-passes with Neverland. The cast is a phenomenal group of actors; I have not even mentioned Kelly Macdonald as Pan in the stage version. But the material is beneath each of them. Neverland does not explore Barrie beyond his skin and ignores some of the more troubling aspects of the play. Instead, Forster lays on cinematic and showy allusions of death way too deep in the film's third act. The dialogue and conclusion cross the line of complete manipulation. But since the character development and the story have packed no punch before these moments, there are no guts or substance presented. Yes, it is sad when people die. But a film should give the audience a reason to shed those tears. Killing off a character and welling up the strings in the orchestra is not enough. Give us a reason to care. Give us a reason to cry. Forster - after sending Halle Berry to to podium - seems to think that sappiness and prodded emotions is a sure-fire way to get his film back to the Oscars. Based on the initial reaction, he may have calculated this with some precision. But calculation does not equate emotion and that does not equate artistic success. Finding Neverland fails to understand its source material and it certainly fails to capture even a percentage of the wonder or magic of the source material. Any wonder or magic would do.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. They say actors insulate themselves into their own world of fame, fortune, and neuroses. But in the case of Peter Sellers, he insulates himself from the world of most actors. With The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, director Stephen Hopkins experiments with a very interesting style of narrative. Not so much interested with the specific details or contributions, Hopkins uses the actor's unique style to develop a world where Seller's genius and creativity have so clouded his reality that his work and his life no longer exist separately. The fantasy of his movies and of Hollywood became his life. The multitude of characters he played began to appear in his life. The film allows the actor who beautifully embodies Sellers, Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush - to assume the part of Sellers' family members and co-workers. This is a compelling approach; one vigorously pursued by the filmmakers and the actors alike. In addition to Rush, the other actors tackle their real-life characters with precise abandon. The only problem with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - and it is a common problem with the biopic- is that no time is devoted to the cultivation of the genius or the man's work. The very subject of the film. Without Sellers' comedic grace and his contribution, nobody would know who he was. Let alone make a film about him. When a film does something unique like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, one could cut the filmmakers a little slack. But Sellers is an actor who worked extensively with Kubrick, for Pete's sake. Hopkins should show some interest in the details and contributions of Sellers. Still, the film is something exciting and original to watch.

Sellers began his career as a success on BBC radio as a voice actor. But every time he tried to audition for television or film, he was told he was too old and not good looking enough. A face for radio,one would say. Life and Death very early establishes a strong case of self-hatred in Sellers with acting serving as a vessel for escaping his true self. A British Academy Award and Peter Ustinov backing out of a big Hollywood film acts as the keys for Sellers big breakthrough. He goes to Rome to meet with Blake Edwards (surprisingly underplayed by John Lithgow) and accept the role as Inspector Cleuseau in A Shot in the Dark. He is hesitant at first but takes the job for money. The Inspector ends up getting created on the flight to the set, as Sellers baffles the plane's crew. The Sellers-Edwards relationship is depicted as love-hate. Edwards loves Sellers and Sellers hates Edwards. Sellers blames the director for his "terrible wreck of a performance." Despite his doubts, the film leads to international success and acclaim,. This includes Sellers' delusion that Sophia Loren has fallen for him. He leaves his wife Ann (Emily Watson) and their children. Sellers' relationship with his family prior to this was communicating via pill-fueled rampages.Not being a very good father to begin with, Sellers is worse on the way out the door. "I still love you, but not as much as I love Sophia Loren," he explains. After this "relationship" revealed for what it is, Sellers goes on a rampage of drugs, women, and a general rejection of Hollywood' finest offerings. He is taken by Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) and Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick wants Sellers to play four parts. These roles begin to seep further into Sellers' actual personality as witnessed by Sellers having lunch with his mother Peg (Miriam Margoyles) as Dr. Strangelove, the deranged ex-Naxi scientist. After the success of that film, the studio uses Sellers' trusted psychic Maurice Woodruff (Stephen Fry) to convince Sellers to appear in the new Pink Panther film. Through a funny coincidence in Woodruff's advice, Sellers asks actress Britt Elkland (Charlize Theron) on a date. This turns into a tumultuous marriage,complete with heart attacks and marital abuse. After that divorce, The film ends with Sellers' dream role,Chauncey the Gardner from Being There. "He's a man who doesn't exist", Sellers proclaims almost giddily. The last moment is Sellers in the snow dressed and Chauncey. As the snow hits the ground, he slowly fades away.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers does not examine how a person goes from sadness to fame to madness like most bio-pics. This film attempts to document what that might look like from the inside. Hopkins uses a number of cinematic styles - from shaky home movies to Kubrickian light exposure - to make Sellers life look like a movie. While Sellers' characters appearing in his real-life drama is clever, the real masterstroke of the narrative is allowing Rush to play multiple characters in Sellers' life the way he did in his films. Rush plays Kubrick, Edwards, his wives, and his mother at any given point. This not only shows Sellers' life as fantasy, but also reveals the man as a total control freak. A man who appreciates the ability to turn an acting performance into a microcosm of neurosis management. This is cinematic impressionism at its finest; a way for Sellers nasty and self-destructive personality to be expressed visually. Rush does a phenomenal job of crawling into Sellers' skin and creating a portrait of all the supporting characters through the eyes of Sellers himself. And Watson and Theron do very capable jobs of playing the emotionally battered women in his life. And between Edwards and Kubrick, I would have never guessed that Lithgow would bring more life to the Pink Panther director than Tucci would with Kubrick. Then again, Kubrick and Sellers had more in common between the two directors. All the same, the Edwards/Sellers relationship has more drama and a lot more weight. But the film never really gets to the root or impact of Sellers' genius. This film makes the same mistake of many in the genre that supporting characters just stand around the their mouths dropped and making proclamations about the genius of the main character. One wishes the film spent more time on the mechanics of these films and how the characters were really conceived. This is an HBO film after all. They have time and money to burn. It's all fine and good that Life and Death wants to presume these creations materialized from Sellers' scarred psyche. That's certainly the "out" given by the narrative. But that is rather unfulfilling. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a visually alluring and exciting film. But there's not a lot of insight. It's a mixed bag but it's better than watching a famed playwright playing with little boys.


The Pitch for Finding Neverland:
1 Shakespeare in Love + 1 Hook = 2 Finding Neverland
The Pitch for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
2 Shine + 1 Stanley Kubrick = The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
See It For:
Insert Inappropriate Yet Accurate Michael Jackson/Neverland Ranch Joke Here (Wait, Don't Insert Anything. That's Against the Law. )