Early in The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan, an ambitious journalist (Thandie Newton) sits down to interview up-and-coming young actor Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer), who’s just published a celebrated childhood memoir. After turning on her tape recorder and taking a few perfunctory notes, the journalist reveals that she hasn’t read Rupert’s book and didn’t want this assignment. She considers it a fluff piece, and suggests that his “first-world problems” are unworthy of her attention. Rupert then launches into an impassioned monologue about the pain and heartbreak he experienced as a struggling child actor dealing with a mercurial stage mother—sounding for all the world like John F. Donovan’s writer-director, Xavier Dolan, who began his own career as a child actor (in Quebec), and whose tempestuous relationship with Mom formed the basis of his superb debut feature, I Killed My Mother. “Please take me seriously,” this lengthy, earnest speech beseeches. The journalist says nothing, but she dons a pair of spectacles, flips her tape recorder’s cassette to the other side, and opens her notebook to a fresh page. She’s starting anew.
That degree of shameless hokiness permeates Dolan’s latest (and weakest) effort to reach U.S. theaters, which arrives over a year after its ill-received premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. At its bleeding heart is the unusual epistolary relationship that develops between 11-year-old Rupert (played in flashbacks by Room’s Jacob Tremblay) and major movie star John F. Donovan (Kit Harington, sporting his Jon Snow hair), who replies to the kid’s fan letter, initiating a correspondence that continues for years. On top of the world yet miserable, mostly because he’s chosen to remain in the closet rather than risk alienating his fanbase, Donovan improbably opens up to this pre-pubescent stranger, sharing his misgivings, fears, and regrets. As the title foregrounds, there’s no happy ending here, with the star ultimately dying of a drug overdose that’s strongly hinted to have been suicide. But his martyrdom paves the way for Rupert, who’s endeavoring to live the proud, confident, fully uncompromised life that his idol simply couldn’t.
All of Dolan’s films (which also include Mommy and Laurence Anyways) feel intensely personal, but John F. Donovan pushes hard into outright wish fulfillment. Dolan has shared a fan letter he wrote as a boy to Leonardo DiCaprio, and this movie plays like his semi-idealized imagining of what might have happened had DiCaprio replied (and then later kicked the bucket, so this is actually a nightmare scenario in which numerous Tarantino and Scorsese films potentially never get made). Trouble is, we never really experience the story’s central friendship, which occurs entirely on paper and is necessarily conveyed in tiny fragments. Instead, Dolan leaps back and forth between the present-day framing device, flashbacks to Rupert’s rocky childhood (in which Natalie Portman plays his doting but frazzled mother), and anecdotes from Donovan’s brief, lonely bout with stardom. All of these scenes are acted and directed to the hilt, creating a bipolar emotional effect that repeatedly swings from ecstasy to misery and back again. But the overall impression is one of strident, self-serving emptiness—a barely coherent upchuck of raw emotion.
Speculating about what happened to a movie in post-production is usually a fool’s game, and arguably irrelevant—unless an alternate version turns up down the road, the released version is what it is. Still, it’s perhaps worth nothing that Dolan’s original cut of John F. Donovan reportedly ran nearly four hours, and that he wound up excising an entire subplot involving another journalist played by Jessica Chastain (who doesn’t appear at all in the film as released). There’s no way of knowing whether something essential got lost in the editing process, and no indication that any changes were imposed upon Dolan. Even his best films often veer into tonal hyperbole, so it may just be that he’s becoming less rather than more disciplined as he grows older. (He’s still just 30, despite having made his first feature a decade ago.) In any case, what remains of John F. Donovan is a barely coherent mess, and so eager for your approval that it’s hard to feel anything but sorry for it.