Alright, Zeller’s Insight into what makes Nicholas tick is minimal – when Nicholas tells his mom and dad about his unbearable mental anguish do they try to dig a little deeper? No. They just mollycoddle him. If he has BPD or SAD, there would be some blunting of affect. But that is not what we see and, more importantly, what we feel with McGrath’s Nicholas. This is not an actor inhabiting a wounded individual incapable of expressing emotion. This is a non-performance.
“The Son”, written (again with Christopher Hampton) and directed by Florian Zeller, is the second in his trilogy of plays (“The Father” – already adopted into the double Oscar winner by Zeller and Hampton with Sir Anthony Hopkins and “The Mother” which we may or may not see on screen) which focus on the stresses placed on the family unit when the title character begins to implode. However, while “The Father” was the very model of a smooth play-to-screen transition – even more impressive given that it was Zeller’s directorial debut and the trilogy was originally written in French – “The Son” is its opposite. This time the dialogue seems forced, and Zeller’s direction seems off. But what destroys this movie is the performance of the actor in the title role.
A couple of years after his parent’s divorce, 17-year-old Nicholas (Australian actor Zen McGrath making his Hollywood debut) no longer feels he can stay with his mother, Kate (Laura Dern). He moves in with his father Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Peter’s new partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby). Juggling work, his and Beth’s new baby, and the offer of his dream job in Washington, Peter tries to care for Nicholas as he wishes his own father (Anthony Hopkins in a badly judged cameo) had cared for him. But it’s an uphill battle!
The movie is constructed (in a haphazard fashion) around Jackman’s performance and what a performance it is. Looking dashing in his tailored suits in his ultra-modern law office, with what must be the best view in all of Manhattan, Jackman’s Peter is a man who has worked hard for what he’s got and now feels he has the right to enjoy the spoils. He also feels he has the right to a second chance in life. A new life with a new wife and a new baby. So, it’s hard not to take his side when his seventeen-year-old son starts to disintegrate, destroying the lives of all those around him.
What is it with Nicholas? He stops going to school but tells his parents otherwise. He says he cannot bear the pain of living. More than teenage angst? He’s depressed. But it must be more than that. A habitual liar, he is off-the-scale selfish. He’s a brat who has serious mental issues. Borderline personality disorder. Schizoaffective disorder. The DSM positively explodes with possibilities. However, none of these possibilities matter because McGrath’s performance is exceptionally weak. Alright, Zeller’s Insight into what makes Nicholas tick is minimal – when Nicholas tells his mom and dad about his unbearable mental anguish do they try to dig a little deeper? No. They just mollycoddle him. If he has BPD or SAD, there would be some blunting of affect. But that is not what we see and, more importantly, what we feel with McGrath’s Nicholas. This is not an actor inhabiting a wounded individual incapable of expressing emotion. This is a non-performance. Is it Zeller’s direction, or is it that McGrath can’t act? We will have to wait and see.
The tragic thing is that McGrath, within the dynamics of the movie, destroys two of the three superb actors he is working with, and your heart goes out to them. Dern has been getting a lot of slack for her work here. However, with Zeller’s dialogue, and the fact that most of her scenes are with McGrath, it’s a minor miracle she survived. And Jackman. What a raw deal! He pours his heart and every bright and dark corner of his soul into Peter but, because he is acting and bouncing off a character who is nothing on screen (and who we, the audience, do not care for in the slightest!), it’s all for naught. A performance that should be an Oscar contender is dead in the water.
Only the wonderful Kirby escapes, like a breath of fresh air outside the Nicholas universe. Because he is only a tangential force in Beth’s life, Kirby is free to create a real character. She has a few scenes with McGrath, but most are with Jackman and it’s a pleasure to see just the two of them together without you-know-who!
– A quick segue here: During one of their scenes, Jackman’s Peter refers to a huge fight they had the previous evening. Well, that’s the first time the audience has heard or seen this. The last we saw of Peter he was in a deep funk leaving his palatial office the previous evening! It’s one of the all-time EDITING GOOFS. Just more evidence of what a shoddy piece of work this is and how little the movie makers cared about their viewing public –
There is a quietness and knowingness about Kirby’s Beth. Her few scenes brighten up this otherwise very disappointing movie.