We take a look at the Submarine star’s directorial début…
You’d think Jim (Craig Roberts) had it bad enough, growing up in Wales in the 90s, but in addition to that, he’s bullied at school; his parents are indifferent; the one teacher of his we see (PE) is actively malevolent; his only friend has gone off to hang out with the nasty “cool” kids; the girl he likes ignores him at best; his dog’s run off; and the local cinema only plays one film, a forgotten – and from the looks of it, forgettable – film noir. We suffer through this miserable life with him for a good bit of the film until Dean arrives next door from America. Dean, who is exactly as charismatic and charming as Emile Hirsch, and looks just like him, offers Jim a beer and, since this is a movie, within five minutes Dean is turning Jim’s life around, teaching him how to be cool and get the girl.
As it turns out, Dean’s lessons consist of teaching Jim how to be just like him: he can’t give Jim the Jimmy Dean good looks he himself enjoys, but he can get him out of stripey shirts and into tight white tees, give him a pompadour, and show him how to smoke and fight, one after the other or both at the same time.
Dean himself constantly has a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and that combined with his red sports car and his Tyler Durden fashion sense gives him a sense of unreality, like he’s too much an American icon to be real. I almost wondered if he was in Jim’s head, like Play it Again, Sam or (some say) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I was wrong, but I was almost right, as there’s something up with Dean that becomes increasingly apparent as he insinuates himself into Jim’s life, wooing his parents as Jim himself appears to go off the rails. It all goes a bit Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but it isn’t exciting enough to work as a thriller, funny enough to work as a comedy, believable enough to work as a drama, and doesn’t have enough of a point to work as a satire. It just exists, for 84 not-unpleasant, not-very-exciting-either minutes.
It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with it, especially; it would almost be a relief if there was, but it isn’t interesting enough to have major flaws. The performances are all strong, but they’re never special. You expect in a film like this that the minor characters will be stereotypes, but the major characters are all stereotypes too, and that’s a problem. One gets the very strong impression that star-slash-first-time-director-slash-former-child-actor Roberts could never quite make his mind up where the film was going; whether we’re supposed to believe in its world or distance ourselves from it; whether we’re laughing with it or at it. After Roberts impressed as the lead in Richard Aoyade’s Submarine, Aoyade went on to make The Double, in which a cool kid becomes mentor to a loser, then slowly turns into a malevolent figure. Could Roberts have copied some ideas from his former mentor? The parallels are surprisingly many, down to the small level: Aoyade’s film had genre-busting fun with a Doctor Who parody watched by its main character; Roberts’ film has genre-busting fun with a noir parody watched by the main character. But The Double was able to create a convincingly sinister world that shared more with Kafka than Dostoevsky. Just Jim doesn’t know whether it’s a dark fantasy, or our own world.
This indecision shows up, too, in the directorial style, which is split into two extremely distinct halves: first realist like Loach, then surrealist like Lynch. One moment the film isn’t filled with montages and jump cuts, then it is. Either style might have worked in assured hands, but it is what it feels like: a timid attempt at assuredness from a director young enough to be ID’d in pubs.
Just Jim opens in the UK today! Will you be checking it out? Be sure to let us know in the box below!