THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 137, September 3, 2001
Locke Laid, Gary Gabs
The Fizzle of Ayn Rand
by Jeremy Lee
Exclusive to TLE
I sat through it, finally, a couple years after the first theater and cable airing and attendant controversy among Randians of every description. The Blockbuster near where I now live stocks the video, so there was no more avoiding it. Morbid curiosity must be satisfied.
First, I agree with the many critics who say a biographical film about the great novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand should not have focused thus ghoulishly, to the exclusion virtually of all else, on the soap-operish quadrangle that preoccupied Rand in the late 50s and 60s and which ultimately wrought such havoc in the incipient Objectivist movement. Barbara Branden made a bad call in agreeing to let this film be made. It comes off more as a bad adaptation of Nathaniel Branden's Judgment Day (first edition) than as a bad adaptation of Barbara's own much more full-bodied biographical portrait.
But I go further and argue that the job could have been infinitely better done and more compelling even given the exact same material and outline. The problem with this flick, given its own terms, is not so much that it is tawdry as that it is dull. Where's the beef?
Everything here is bland, flat, off-key (off-key artistically, not just with respect to the chronic and mostly pointless transpositions of what actually happened). The movie is nothing but a string of climaxes that are anticlimaxes, because never explained or built up to. (Tension? Suspense? What's that?)
There are virtues, mostly the performances, all of which are good. None strike me as great, though; or at least not as really great. And that includes Mirren's much-ballyhooed turn as Ayn Rand.
I suppose it is the script's fault, but Rand's intensity or charm or anger, not to mention her genius, is simply not conveyed. (Weirdness, yes. There's plenty of that.) Who is this Ayn Rand who is having this affair with a fan 25 years her junior, even as the fan's wife and the guru's own husband look on with nominal, logic-extracted approval? What is it about Rand and her ideas, her work, her portrayal and espousal of individualism, that inspired such impassioned and sometimes blind commitment from so many? Who was Mirren playing, for Christ's sake? Well, as far as this flick goes, just a lonely, late-middle-aged guru with 12 sentences of prepackaged philosophy and, somehow, a capacity to write a very fat book that inspires a lot of fan mail.
True, it would not have been easy for anyone to portray the actual Ayn Rand (especially given the paucity of the script). But something on that level is what would have made for the kind of truly great performance some say Mirren achieved. But greatness has something to do with being able to do very hard things superlatively well, not not-so-hard things pretty well. Mirren is good, granted, but not transcendent. She does a fine job playing a not very interesting, watered-down and distorted version of the real thing.
One could at least call Mirren's Emmy-Award-winning performance sympathetic except that the Rand of the script is such a blazing goofy ass. Peter Fonda's Golden-Globe-winning rendition of Rand's hapless spouse, Frank O'Connor, is more believable, perhaps because the laid-back and receding guy of the movie is closer to the real guy as reported. There is less for Fonda to do, and that less is done better. But even this performance is perpetually punctured by the deficiencies of the script, which impels the O'Connor character to comment on his situation in an all-too-knowing way even when he is in the middle of being totally out of it. That the script refuses to let Fonda's performance speak for itself is the fault primarily of the director, Christopher Menaul. Once he had seen what Fonda was doing with the part Menaul should have been shouting "Cut that line!...and that one...and that other line too, get that out of there, we don't need that!" As it was, a lot of other, better stuff landed on the cutting-room floor which was valuable and which would have rendered parts of the film actually intelligible (at least according to Barbara Branden, who saw both the before version and the after version).
Julie Delpy as Barbara you keep wanting to slap. If that's the way Barbara Branden was in real life, why didn't Nathaniel (Eric Stolz) just shoot her and chop up the body? He would have been within his rights. As far as the movie goes, it certainly would have added conflict and suspense. Barbara claims she was not that wimpy in real life, and one must believe her.
And what's with the languorous, nearly comatose theme music? Did the committee invent that just for this feature? There are three notes total and two of those three are identical. The makers of "Passion" should have had the same theme music they had for "Twister" ... you know, sprightly chasing-the-tornado type music, with Rand periodically jumping into a jeep to head toward the next just-sighted irrationalism. "Twister" being one of the cinematic classics of our time, it's disappointing that the producers of "Semi-Passion of Ayn Rand" didn't glom onto this approach. But I don't suppose they studied Atlas or The Humpinghead very carefully either.
At least there was some "wit" in the denouementic Q&A, eh? "I love those three girls!" Mirren's Rand tells the crowd, about why she enjoys "Charlie's Angels." Wow, talk about crisp and incisive.
If there had been more humping scenes maybe that would have helped. I think there were only three. There should be eight or ten humping scenes in a flick like this, with "A is A ... B is B ... C is C ..." being intoned in the background to the tune of a Gregorian chant. (Do people actually hump in that robotic manner when they have sex? Wouldn't that be tiring?)
Rand's signature angry outburst: the surprise party after the publication of Atlas. Wow. How did they think to zero in on that while bypassing all the crumpled whim-worshipers piling up on Rand's carpet?
And didn't Rand have a cat? Here as is the case with the omitted stamp collection we have another gratuitous deviation from the historical record, the absence of any cat. (No-cat-in-evidence seems to have been deliberate on the part of the moviemakers, almost as if they were trying to portray Rand as anti-cat. Rand was not anti-cat; if anything, she was pro-cat.) If there had been a cat and Rand had had sex with the cat that would have added interest. Then Nathaniel could have had sex with Frank and Barbara could have had sex with one of the cactuses (cactusesae?) and finally achieved rational orgasm.
Rand's philosophy and reputation will survive this botch. That's not the issue. The issue is that in addition to being painful in so many other ways, "The Anemic Hemi-semi-demi Passion of Ayn Rand" is painfully dull. And when it comes to any effort at art, that is the one sin that is unforgivable. It's like something you'd see on TV.