Directed and co-edited by Xavier Dolan and screenplay by Dolan and Jacob Tierney from a story by Dolan, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is the story of a young man who reminisces his time as a child when he wrote corresponding letters to an American TV star who died mysteriously following a scandal that also affected the young boy. The film is an exploration of celebrity as well as a young man coping with his possible role in the death of his idol as well as how many claimed their relationship wasn’t innocent. Starring Kit Harrington, Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandiwe Newton, Ben Schnetzer, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, Jared Keeso, Amara Karan, and Michael Gambon. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a messy and overly-dramatic film from Xavier Dolan.
The film follows a young novelist/actor who is interviewed by a journalist over a book he wrote about his corresponding letters with an American TV star more than a decade ago who died mysteriously following a scandal relating to both of them. It’s a film that is an exploration of fame and celebrity as well as how his stardom won the affections of a young boy who would write corresponding letters with him that eventually would cause trouble. It’s an idea that is interesting yet Xavier Dolan and co-writer Jacob Tierney create a script that is overwhelmed with ideas but with not much to say as the result is something extremely messy and overblown. Notably as its narrative moved back and forth into the story of its titular character (Kit Harrington) and his young fan in Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay) while the older Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) talks about everything to the journalist Audrey Newhouse (Thandiwe Newton).
The script opens with the news of John F. Donovan’s death and Rupert’s reaction as he is watching it on TV at a coffee house with his mother Sam (Natalie Portman) as it would be the start of a non-linear reflective narrative where the older Rupert talks to Newhouse about the book he wrote. Yet, Dolan and Tierney chooses to create a parallel narrative about Donovan’s rise and his need to keep his homosexuality a secret while the young Rupert is striving to become a young actor inspired by Donovan despite the homophobic abuse he receives from classmates. It’s a narrative that showcases both Donovan and Rupert’s own issues with their mothers but also their own struggles with who they are yet it is a narrative that tends to overwhelm itself with the older Rupert coming across as someone who has become an asshole. Especially as it features various characters in their lives with the exception of a few who are either underwritten or played as clichés.
Dolan’s direction definitely has ambition and a look that plays into this world of celebrity though it is largely set in three different cities such as New York City, London, and Prague as much of the film is shot on location in Montreal. While many of Dolan’s compositions are straightforward, there are elements of style in some of the scenes he shoots as it play into some of the film’s melodrama. There are some wide and medium shots in not just scopes of the locations but also in some intimate moments with the latter as it play into conversations including scenes that play into the lives of Donovan and the young Rupert as they struggle with their own issues as well as their own parallel relationships with their mother. Yet, there are these moments in the film where Dolan’s approach to melodrama does create scenes that are either cheesy or just overwrought such as a scene where Donovan visits his mother Grace (Susan Sarandon) for Thanksgiving as Donovan is accompanied by his wife Amy (Emily Hampshire) and his brother James (Jared Keeso) as it becomes this overblown moment of Grace feeling unappreciated while she’s drunk as Donovan gets angry over his uncle being an asshole.
It’s not just that sequence that feels overwritten as well as a scene where Rupert’s corresponding letters were discovered after a homophobic classmate stole them where Rupert had to break into the boy’s house to get it back. It’s also scenes where the older Rupert talks to Newhouse about ethics where he comes off as entitled as it’s another scene that doesn’t work. Dolan also puts in an odd scene where an old man (Michael Gambon) gives Donovan some advice late in the film where it is a strange moment that never feels earned as it would be followed by a scene of Donovan at his mother’s house where he and his brother are singing Lifehouse’s Hanging By a Moment that feels tacked on and never adds anything to the story. For a film that is meant to be this exploration of scandal, misunderstanding, and celebrity, Dolan not only doesn’t say anything new but he also dwells into clichés that doesn’t feel earned nor does it help the story in general. Overall, Dolan crafts an overwritten and baffling film about a young man reflecting on his time as a kid corresponding letters to a troubled TV star.
Cinematographer Andre Turpin does excellent work with the film’s cinematography as its emphasis on low-key lighting and lack of vibrant colors do add to the film’s dramatic tone despite its messy narrative. Editors Xavier Dolan and Mathieu Denis do fine work with the editing where it does have elements of style though some of it do go overboard to play into some major dramatic moments. Production designers Anne Pritchard and Colombe Raby do fantastic work with the look of the home that Donovan’s mother live in as well as the school and home that the young Rupert goes to in London. Costume designers Michele Clapton and Pierre-Yves Gayraud do nice work with the costumes as it has some style in the clothes that Donovan wears while much of it is just casual.
Hair/makeup designer Jan Archibald does terrific work with the look of Sam with her hairstyle as well as the look of a few other characters to play into the world that Rupert and Donovan are in. Special effects supervisor Guillaume Murray and visual effects supervisor Jean-Francois Ferland do some OK with the film’s visual effects for scenes relating to the TV show Donovan is in as well as some set-dressing for some of the film’s locations. Sound designer Sylvain Brassard does superb work with the sound in the way music is played on a car radio to the atmosphere of a few party scenes as well as some sparse moments in the dramatic aspects of the film. The film’s music by Gabriel Yared is good for some of the lush orchestral score pieces that does play into the drama though it does have moments where it does feel overdone while the music soundtrack that features music from Cat Power, Adele, P!nk, Lifehouse, and the Verve do have their moments as it play into the period of the mid-2000s yet some feel used in the most clichéd ways.
The casting by Carmen Cuba is wonderful despite the fact that the cast wasn’t given strong material to work with as small roles from Jane Wheeler and Susan Almgren as two of Donovan’s aunts, Craig Eldridge as Donovan’s asshole uncle Patrick, Lukas Rolfe as the young Rupert’s homophobic classmate Cedric, Sarah Gadon as one of Donovan’s co-stars in Liz Jones, Jared Keeso as Donovan’s older brother James, and Chris Zylka in a somewhat-bland performance as an actor in Will Jefford Jr. who would have a thing with Donovan as he’s never given anything to do. Michael Gambon’s one-scene performance as a man who gives Donovan advice is amazing despite the fact that the scene made no sense while Emily Hampshire’s performance as Donovan’s wife Amy is severely underwritten as someone who never really says a lot in the film.
Kathy Bates and Amara Karan are excellent in their respective roles as Donovan’s manager Barbara Haggermaker and Rupert’s schoolteacher Miss Kureshi with the former being a no-nonsense manager who does what she can for Donovan but not put up with his bullshit while the latter is a kind-hearted teacher who believes that Rupert is gifted. Ben Schnetzer’s performance as the 21-year old Rupert is terrible as he switches between a British and American accent every now and then where he comes off as a real douche bag in how he talks about his past and observations while Thandiwe Newton manages to be solid as the journalist Audrey Newhouse as she just plays it straight and not putting up with some of the bullshit. Susan Sarandon has her moments as Donovan’s mother Grace in quieter moments though the scenes where she is melodramatic is her over-acting a bit.
Natalie Portman is superb as Rupert’s mother Sam as a woman who is baffled by her son’s relationship with Donovan through the letters where Portman does show some realism in the mother world despite some of the clichéd dramatic tropes she had to endure. Kit Harrington’s performance in the titular role is a mess as it does have moments of someone that is struggling with his identity but Harrington is unfortunately hindered by clichés that never allows his character to be fully engaging. Finally, there’s Jacob Tremblay in an incredible performance as the young Rupert Turner where Tremblay displays this air of energy and enthusiasm to the role but also someone who is just trying to understand the ways of the world as he is the only real highlight of the film.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a horrendous film from Xavier Dolan. Despite the performances of Jacob Tremblay, Natalie Portman, Kathy Bates, and Amara Karan, the film is unfortunately bogged down by too many ideas in its study of celebrity and identity by favoring melodrama and tacked on moments that never says anything. It is a film that had a unique idea but fails in its execution where it dwells too much into convention while never going into places that could’ve done more with its subject matter. In the end, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is an absolute failure from Xavier Dolan.
Xavier Dolan Films: I Killed My Mother - Heartbeats (2010 film) - Laurence Anyways - Tom at the Farm - Mommy (2014 film) - (It’s Only the End of the World) – (Matthias & Maxime) – The Auteurs #46: Xavier Dolan
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