Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

12 September 2014

Jude Law is Dom Hemingway and You're Not

In a lot of ways, Dom Hemingway, a film written and directed by Richard Shepard (who, as far as I can tell, was known before this only for a single episode of 30 Rock and the Pierce Brosnan film The Matador), is strikingly similar to a film I watched recently called Filth, by writer-director Jon S. Baird.

Both films are about reprehensible main characters who are almost completely unhinged. They are both crime films, filled with cocaine and prostitutes and lots and lots of drinking. Both films are also about traditional masculinity (this isn't just my read on them: they both want to be about masculinity) and its attendant components: heterosexuality, violence, futurity, impenetrability. I think, for the record, that I tend to dislike films that take traditional masculinity as a kind of uninterrogable given. Liam Neeson's revenge films (and before him: Mel Gibson's revenge films) tend to do this, for example. But I tend to be fascinated by films that specifically address masculinity, attempting to explore how it works emotionally, relationally, etc.

This poster is genius. Obviously. That ape!

So: if I liked Filth for its surrealism and its strangely shifting, drug-addled perspective, I loved Dom Hemingway. The reasons are several, but they have everything to do with Shepard's point of view about his main character. The film opens with Jude Law getting a blowjob from an unseen character, and Dom Hemingway talking about how amazing his penis is. He goes on and on in the opening monologue: it is a ridiculous, hilarious almost endless list of how his penis should win the Nobel Peace prize and can do laudable feats like rescue dying children and cure cancer. The absurdity of this is immediately clear, and that the person with whom Dom Hemingway is having sex with is a fellow inmate already signals that this film is an interrogation into traditional masculinity and not a simple celebration of its attributes.

Where Filth allowed its protagonist to talk to us directly, asking us to buy into his delusions of grandeur, Dom Hemingway always keeps a slight distance from its protagonist, treating him like the delusional relic of traditional masculinity that he is. Other men do not cower before Dom Hemingway; they are amused by him, but they think he's an asshole and no one in the film wishes he were Dom Hemingway.

Jordan A. Nash & Jude Law
The film is filled with Dom's angry, completely ludicrous outbursts and his outrageous, violent behavior. But the film never asks us to agree with Dom, to think him clever; one never really feels as though Dom is making the right decision. We get to enjoy his antics, to be sure, but he is never a model for behavior. And after the three opening sequences, the film shifts perspective from Dom himself. We see him from the perspective of his friend, from the perspective of his boss, from the perspective of his daughter, from the perspective of his son-in-law, and from the perspective of his grandson. Dom Hemingway says that masculinity is funny, sexy, even awesome, but then... one has to interact with other people, and the failings of traditional masculinity become all too clear when actual other humans are involved. Further, Dom himself understands his own limitations – he totally grasps his own problems with anger, and he even knows that he is usually the least intelligent person in the room. All of this manages to be, well, endearing, and keeps the exploration of masculinity a sincere one rather than Filth's ironic, half-hearted pseudo-exploration of the same thing. This is a rich, very funny film, with a fierce central performance from Jude Law. Great stuff.