Ed Harris excels, but film does not
'Pollock' an incomplete picture of artist
(CNN) -- There's never been a thoroughly satisfying film about a brilliant painter, although several talented directors, including Robert Altman and Vincent Minnelli, have come close to pulling it off. Your natural tendency is to want a clear-cut "reason" for the artist's creativity, even though art's attraction lies in the fact that it can't be completely described in words. Great painting resonates with amorphous meaning. If you could easily get to the bottom of it, it wouldn't be such a rewarding form of communication.
With that in mind, it's tough to criticize "Pollock," actor Ed Harris' bio-pic of the iconoclastic, self-doubting painter Jackson Pollock. Harris also takes the lead role, and he delivers perhaps the best performance of his mostly dignified career. (Anyone remember 1994's "Milk Money?") As good as Harris is, the movie's real accomplishment is an evocative depiction of the period itself.
The story takes place in the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike most films that attempt to re-create this bygone era, signifiers aren't rubbed in your face while "In the Mood" blares from a radio. Mark Friedberg's production design is reminiscent of such films as "The Godfather" (1972) and "Silkwood" (1983), in that the details seem right and completely natural. Harris allows his actors to inhabit a lived-in environment without turning them into walking knick-knacks that announce the period. You feel like they're experiencing the setting, not clarifying it.
If only there was more meat to the script.
Pollock's life, the picture informs us, alternated between moments of resounding praise and recognition, and long stretches of drunken, self-absorbed howling. His interest in jazz music, and the terrible beauty of his most frenzied paintings, suggests that he tied directly into the post-World War II mindset that generated the Beat poets, and mind-bending novelists like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. But that kind of connection is exactly what's missing from the movie. All you really find out about Pollock is that he didn't care that he had a drinking problem.
Pollock started his career as a Picasso-like surrealist, then ascended to icon status when his groundbreaking "drip method" of painting took the art world by storm. Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller focus on the painter's formidable psychological quirks without even implying how the inner turmoil was generated. His spiritual struggles remain locked in his head, even when drinking binges twist him into existential agony. He doesn't even seem all that enlightened as an artist. The most insightful thing he says in the entire picture is that Gene Krupa is the best drummer in the world ... which he was, at the time. Unless you count Buddy Rich.
The early scenes - during which Pollock meets his future wife, the artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), and gains early acceptance via the support of Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) -- are reminiscent of last year's "Joe Gould's Secret." The Greenwich Village art crowd is portrayed as supportive of exciting new work, even when Pollock gets drunk and urinates into the fireplace during a swanky New Year's Eve party at Guggenheim's brownstone. Way to go, Jackson!
Harris is repeatedly shown creating free-flowing paintings, and he certainly seems guided by the spirit. Later, when Pollock starts dripping paint onto his canvases without letting the brush touch the surface, you'd swear that you're watching the real person in action. It's thrilling.
Though her Noo Yawk accent wavers in and out, Harden is fine as Krasner. But there comes a point when you wonder why she would continue to put up with Pollock's drunken rages and open-air womanizing. Genius or not, what he needed more than anything else was a solid pop in the mouth for tormenting an endlessly loyal woman.
Pollock also has confrontational relationships with his mother (Sada Thompson), his brother (Robert Knott), and the legendary art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor). He even gives his sexy young girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) a difficult time.
The cast does creditable work. The only miscues come from Val Kilmer, in a small role as Willem de Kooning. Kilmer, who has repeatedly established that he can't act worth a damn, looks like an escapee from a wax museum. He's so stiff, it's a wonder he can lift his arms. Kilmer and Keanu Reeves should get together some time and compare their lack of notes.
Art fans should have a good time watching "Pollock," as long as they're not hoping to discover the key to his anguish. The struggle to pull art out of oneself, in any form, is a personal battle that's probably best left to the unconscious mind. If it has to be explained, in other words, you'll never get it.
There's profanity in "Pollock" and some minor sexual situations. The most disturbing parts involve heavy-duty drinking. Let that be lesson to you kids out there. Rated R. 117 minutes.
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