Everything about Beautiful Boy practically screams awards season success. Firstly, it’s based on a hefty, issues-based true story with biographical subject matter. Then there’s the fact that leading men Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet have both become darlings of the Academy in recent years, with Chalamet a complete delight during his breakout campaign for Call Me By Your Name 12 months ago. However, the movie has been largely absent from the Oscars discussion. Having seen it, it’s clear why awards voters have remained unmoved.
The story lends itself well to performance-driven schmaltz as Carell and Chalamet play father and son David and Nic Sheff, whose relationship is shaken by the latter’s addiction to crystal meth. Writer-director Felix van Groeningen spends the entire two hours of his movie trying to land emotional blows on the audience, like a prize fighter circling his opponent in search of an opening. He is able to hit a couple of token body shots, but never manages the knockout strike that would get the waterworks going.
In fact, Van Groeningen often gets in his own way when it comes to the emotion, stumbling over his own filmmaking feet. There are at least half a dozen montages in the movie, which are constantly jarring and cheap, not least due to one of the most intrusive and maudlin musical soundtracks in years. It’s a little like watching snippets from a better film, while the filmmaker stands on your shoulder and repeatedly yells the word “cry” directly into your ear canal.
But that’s not to say that Beautiful Boy is entirely a wasted effort. Carell and Chalamet are solid, with the latter especially doing a very strong job in a role that’s showy enough to enable him access to the full acting bag of tricks. The performance just seems to get better as the movie goes on, growing and developing without any overt physical transformation – one of the movie’s major suspensions of disbelief is imagining anyone addicted to meth could look as good as Chalamet. He’s considerably better than the film he’s in, which constantly pushes very conventional buttons.
The film lives or dies on the scenes of confrontation – and indeed of bonding – between the two leading men. The story is based on the twin memoirs of David and Nic, so focuses on their accounts of what passed between them. Scenes in which the two of them are allowed to simply talk are the ones in which the movie finds its groove, allowing the focus to sit squarely on the two performers, rather than the gooey direction and sun-dappled cinematography.
There’s a great movie trying to escape from within the heart of Beautiful Boy, but Van Groeningen’s take on the material is far too preoccupied with creating a prestige sheen and telling the audience precisely how to feel at every moment of the story. It lurches from dramatic set piece to dramatic set piece, with only haphazard montages to tie the various threads together. It’s simultaneously got too much and too little going on, forming a movie that, despite its title and it’s stellar performances, is actually a little ugly.
Dir: Felix van Groeningen
Scr: Felix van Groeningen, Luke Davies
Cast: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever
Prd: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
DOP: Ruben Impens
Music: Bob Bowen (exec in charge of music)
Run time: 120 mins
Beautiful Boy is out in UK cinemas from 18th January.