Sometimes you go into a movie knowing it’ll be good, but you’re not certain you’ll be entertained. Such was the case, at least for me, with “Whiplash.”
The film has been getting a lot of buzz, and the trailer promised intense performances from its leads, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.
Teller stars as Andrew, a first-year drum student at a musical conservatory. He’s a young man whose only friends appear to be a set of drumsticks. Simmons is the instructor who will both inspire and terrorize the young drummer with a dream.
I first saw Teller in 2011’s “Footloose” remake. While the film itself was ridiculous, Teller’s performance as Wilfred proved to be one of the few enjoyable parts of that debacle. In the past three years, Teller’s been popping up in a little bit of everything. He’s appeared opposite Shailene Woodley in both “Divergent” and “The Spectacular Now.” And in 2015, he’ll step into the elastic shoes of Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic in a reboot of “The Fantastic Four.” The guy is diverse, if nothing else.
Simmons has his own tie to the superhero cinematic role. While you might know him from any number of film and TV roles, such as “Law & Order” or “Oz,” one of his most awesome has been that of J. Jonah Jameson, the ornery, antagonistic editor of Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. His role was in the Tobey Maguire films of the early 2000, not the recent craptastic reboots of the not-so-amazing webcrawler. Also, we’re only counting “Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2.” The third film, aka the hot mess with Topher Grace as Venom, should be forgotten and destroyed.
Teller and Simmons both deliver performances of a lifetime, no pun intended. Andrew is a young man who will do anything to succeed and follow in the footsteps of the drummers who have come before him. He practices till his fingers bleed. Nothing is more important than being amazing. Reportedly, Teller spent hours a day with a real-life jazz drummer and his costar, Nate Lang, learning how to fool the camera and the audience. While Teller does have drumming in his background, it was nothing this intricate.
And then there’s Simmons. His performance as Terence Fletcher has been garnering Oscar talk, and it’s no surprise why. Fletcher is intense, determined and more than a little bit scary. He cares about nothing except the music and perfection. He pushes his players to the point of bloody hands and tears, but he will accept nothing less than the best.
The more Fletcher pushes Andrew, the harder Andrew works. The two feed off each other in a twisted, maniacal relationship. Neither has limits or boundaries.
If it wasn’t for the stellar performances by both Simmons and Teller, I’m not sure this film would actually work. The relationship between the two is intense and hypnotic, but the rest of the film falls flat. Honestly, when Teller isn’t interacting with Fletcher or behind a set of drums, he falls a bit flat, too.
You see, “Whiplash” makes a fatal mistake. It tries to have a love story. The creative team doesn’t have enough sense to realize that no relationship will be as important as that of Fletcher and Andrew, so they insert an amazingly crappy attempt at “romance” between Andrew and a girl he meets at the movies, Nicole (Michelle Benoist of “Glee”). Granted, Andrew has no friends and doesn’t know how to talk to people, but the exchanges between Andrew and Nicole are so forced, it’s painful to watch.
The Nicole storyline is ridiculous. Although I will say Benoist becomes one of maybe two females who have a speaking role in the film. The actual number of females in the film isn’t much higher than that. In this world, I’m guessing that anatomy equals talent.
I will say there was one absolutely delightful part of this otherwise dark film. I absolutely loved seeing Paul Reiser acting again. The comedian had me laughing a lot while I was growing up, first on 1987’s “My Two Dads” and then later — and probably more famously — on 1992’s “Mad About You” with Helen Hunt. Reiser is cast as Andrew’s dad. It’s not a big role, but he was a welcome face, nonetheless.
I learned I was right, by the way. “Whiplash” isn’t what I consider entertaining. It’s not your standard popcorn flick, which can be a good thing sometimes. It’s not the film you pop in on a lazy Sunday afternoon and cuddle up to watch. No, “Whiplash” is something deeper. I’m not sure it could hold up without the performances of Teller and especially Simmons, but that’s not a question we have to answer.
“Whiplash” delivers. It’s intense, emotional and maybe, just maybe, inspires each of us to work a little harder at achieving our own goals.