‘The Death & Life of John F. Donovan’ Review: A Child Is Torn

Of all the criticisms one might level at the films of Xavier Dolan, dullness is unlikely to be among them. Until now, perhaps: “The Death & Life of John F. Donovan” isn’t just flat, it’s choppy and grandiose. From its contrived structure to its forced speechifying, this story about a yearslong correspondence between Donovan (Kit Harington), a closeted actor, and Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), a troubled prepubescent boy, never acquires the emotional potency or coherence its themes demand.

Which isn’t to say it’s a chore to watch — far from it. The soundtrack, spiked by Adele and Florence and the Machine, is aces and the cinematography is often quite lovely. The strain comes from a framing device that has the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), now an openly gay actor, laboring to persuade an eye-rolling journalist (Thandie Newton) that his book about the correspondence isn’t celebrity fluff. Rather, it’s a treatise on truth, identity and the life-altering power of fame, at which point it feels as if we’re the ones Dolan is trying to convince.

Narcissism is hardly a hindrance to an artist this talented (who, as a child, wrote a fan letter to Leonardo DiCaprio), but here he seems off his game, his vision muddled and fragmented. Flashbacks detailing Donovan’s tortured decline and Rupert’s youthful tribulations are often histrionic or woefully clichéd, like a rain-swept, slow-motion embrace between the boy and his mother (a pained-looking Natalie Portman). And an excruciating “Don’t ask, don’t tell” Donovan family dinner, featuring a scenery-chewing Susan Sarandon as John’s lush of a mother, is a clamorous debacle.

Struggling to connect the filaments of past and present, youth and maturity, Dolan seems lost, his signature vivaciousness and sense of fun almost entirely muted. Instead, what lingers is a feeling of being lectured to — which isn’t much fun at all.

The Death & Life of John F. Donovan

Rated R for unsatisfied men and unhappy women. Running time: 2 hour 3 minutes.

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