USA 1999

Film still for ivansxtc.

Reviewed by Kim Newman


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Hollywood, the present. Barry Oaks (Adam Krentzman), an agent at the Media Talent Agency, has to handle a crisis caused by the sudden death of his colleague Ivan Beckman, by arranging for director Danny McTeague (James Merendino), his own client, to be fired from Weeds, a film he has written, in order to placate star Don West. At Ivan's funeral, Danny attacks Don and Barry during the eulogy.

Some months earlier, Ivan (Danny Huston), a heavy drug-user, pulls off a coup by taking Danny's script off the slushpile and talking it up in order to lure Don to attach himself to the project and sign with MTA. Only Charlotte (Lisa Enos), Ivan's girlfriend, complains that Ivan hasn't even read the script, and she is mostly irritated because she has her own industry ambitions. A medical check-up reveals that Ivan has cancer. Upset, Ivan steps up his partying, ducking out on Charlotte to attend an orgiastic blow-out in Don's hotel suite. A family dinner at his father's home degenerates into a row when Ivan's sister criticises Charlotte as the latest in his run of cocaine-using girlfriends. Unable to tell any of his friends, relatives or colleagues that he is sick, Ivan finally talks about his terminal illness with a pair of call-girls. Ivan is alone when he finally collapses in pain and the police have to break into his home to take him to hospital, where he makes some connection with a nurse before his death.


Having struggled through a typically 'Hollywood' experience while making a botched version of Anna Karenina, Bernard Rose here turns his attention to another Tolstoy project, the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The Action has been updated from 19th-century Russia to contemporary Los Angeles to overlay the writer-director's feelings about the movie business on Tolstoy's universal meditation on approaching mortality. To stand in for Tolstoy's more obviously 'ordinary' Ivan, Rose created a character based on Hollywood agent Jay Moloney, whose comet-like career ended while ivansxtc. was in post-production in a suicide that makes the parallel all the more clear.

Made outside the studio system with minimalist production methods (very versatile high-definition video cameras), the film is a showcase for the effects that can be achieved digitally, with a distinctive look that is strikingly different from celluloid but still effective in the creation of mood. The end result is a very good movie, but one almost no one would want to pay to sit through because of the bleakness of its themes. The film opens with an off-camera monologue as agent Ivan Beckman concludes that all life is shit, then establishes how his sudden death - from cancer, though everyone assumes it's a drugs overdose - shakes up the industry but is then almost forgotten. Sundry machinations around a greenlit project (the firing of a writer-director, the confirmation of a star's involvement) smooth over the hole made by Ivan's passing, with the mourners fighting at his funeral as his sister reads a eulogy. Then we flash back to the last weeks of Ivan's life, as he charmingly cadges a client (Peter Weller, very creepy as a homophobic, gun-loving movie star) by boosting a script he hasn't even read and pulls strings to put into production a project that has no real reason to exist.

Here, Rose seems to be in the familiar territory of The Player, but ivansxtc. has even more obvious parallels with the US sitcom Action, a brilliantly written but swiftly cancelled Hollywood-insider series to which this film could almost be the sadistically downbeat concluding episode. Action, which followed a ruthless but comically neurotic producer getting an Action movie into production, was also oddly shot through with worries about cancer and other fatal illnesses - perhaps a side-effect of the thorough medical check-ups Hollywood players must undergo at the start of each film shoot for insurance purposes. The major difference with ivansxtc. is that Rose is attempting portraiture rather than satire and refuses to make his Hollywood power people wittier than they are monstrous (though there is mordant humour to the way that orgies and funerals are arranged in exactly the same manner as press conferences and premieres).

Many of the gloomy faces on show are played by agents or producers rather than actors, and there is quite heroic self-exposure from Rose's then agent Adam Krentzman as Ivan's chilled successor and from the film's producer/co-writer Lisa Enos as Ivan's girlfriend Charlotte. Whereas Griffin Mill of The Player and Peter Dragon of Action survive their brushes with death and continue to wheel-and-deal unscathed, here Ivan, an agent rather than a producer, is not magically excluded by wealth or power from his appointment in Samarra.

This is a rare drugs film that shows the fast-lane lifestyle as emptily unfulfilling but not especially harmful, except in the way that the party hierarchy confirms power relations between industryites. Because he has the most clout, big star Don West can 'direct' who takes what drug or performs which sex act at his penthouse party, emphasising the film's analysis of 'entertainment' as something essentially joyless. As a Hollywood horror movie, this is even more gloomily nightmarish than Mulholland Dr., with the digital look, the carefully selected locations and sharp costuming reducing the visual palette to near-monochrome and excluding anything like warmth. As a terminal-illness drama, the film is unsentimental to the point that few who have gone through the death of a contemporary will be able to bear to watch it; in contrast, even Magnolia seems indulgent and tear-jerking. The most affecting touch isn't so much that Ivan keeps his illness secret but that he hasn't anyone in his life, including his family and girlfriend, interested enough in him to make it worth revealing how sick he is (even his PA says she's too busy to come to the clinic with him).

Danny Huston, best known as a director (Mr. North), is terrific in the lead role. Poised and charming and self-regarding, Ivan is a snakelike manipulator of the clinching deal, who would doubtless have orchestrated the chaos we see in the first reel if he had lived, but also a fragile, sensitive man on the edge. A film much easier to admire than like, without the busy charm of Mike Figgis' comparable Timecode or Hotel (in which Huston also appears), this is still a substantial and affecting piece of work.


Bernard Rose
Lisa Enos
Bernard Rose
Lisa Enos
Based on The Death of Ivan Ilyich by
Leo Tolstoy
Directors of Photography
Bernard Rose
Ron Forsythe
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011