Christopher Plummer gives a black hole of a performance in Man in the Chair, which opened in New York last week and in Los Angeles this weekend. Every time he appears, he inexorably sucks attention away from anyone else on screen. Eventually, everything revolves in orbit around him, even when he's not present. Somehow, though, even as Plummer merges his soul with his character at the molecular level, he does so in a modest manner. The seams between actor and role are not readily apparent. It's a pity that the film as a whole doesn't rise to level of his magnificent performance, but he elevates the material by his grizzled presence.
Plummer plays Flash Madden, a retired gaffer with a permanent scowl etched on his face. We meet him in a darkened cinema, muttering to himself, talking back to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, and flashing back to his moment of glory when he was fired, then instantly rehired, on the set of Citizen Kane. He's a moviegoer's worst nightmare, the annoying old guy who keeps up a running commentary while you're trying to enjoy a classic, so our sympathies run toward the man who asks him to shut up. Flash tells the man off, which amuses Cameron Kincaid (a wisely subdued Michael Angarano, who also served as associate producer), a high school senior who wants to win a film school scholarship contest.
Flash puts on a great show of being irascible and irritable, but doesn't seem to mind very much when Cameron begins stalking him. Having overhead that Flash used to work in the movies, Cameron seizes on the thought that the old guy might be able to help him make his student film. From the movie posters hanging in his room and snatches of conversation with his only friend, we get the message that Cameron loves movies. (When he decides to steal a car for a joyride, he insists that it be the same make and model as the titular automotive character in John Carpenter's Christine.) Apparently in common with many young filmmakers today, Cameron wants to make his own movies but doesn't really have anything to say.
Inspiration finally strikes after Flash dismisses Cameron's vague story ideas and introduces him to Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh, playing even more bedraggled than usual), an unhappily discarded Hollywood writer living miserably in a deplorable nursing home (that, oddly enough, looks all the world like a run-down apartment). Cameron decides to make a 10-minute docudrama exploring the abusive conditions found in nursing homes. Mickey's crummy surroundings are contrasted with the well-manicured Motion Picture Retirement Home, where Flash recruits a motley group of fellow residents to come out of retirement to help Cameron make his film.
Cameron lives with his mother (Mimi Kennedy) and stepfather (Mitch Pileggi) in a modest suburban home. He is ragingly unhappy with his stern stepdad and constantly gets in trouble with the law. His association with Flash and the focus of making a movie appears to stabilize him, yet he remains an ambiguous character. He attends a high school where he is taunted by a wealthier boy whose father is in the film industry, which serves to provide occasional conflict that is too convenient by half. Otherwise, he remains stubbornly undefined.
In part, that's a result of the short time frame of the film. Nearly all the events take place during the school's three-week winter break, which lends a degree of urgency that's not really needed while telescoping the development of the relationship between Cameron and Flash. Cameron may be entirely sincere in his growing appreciation of Flash but, again, it feels too convenient to ring entirely true. It would have been more satisfying to see Cameron come to conclusions on his own rather than suspect that it's his desire to get his film made that is the driving force. It's one aspect of their friendship that Flash doesn't really want to explore.
Writer/director Michael Schroeder's heart is in the right place: he fashions an entertaining story that calls attention to nursing home abuse and clothes it with a deep love of cinema. Some of the notes are hit with too heavy a hand, though, while others are simply abandoned. As an example, we don't get enough insight into the dynamics of Cameron's family to appreciate why he's so unhappy and constantly acting out. His stepfather is certainly not supportive, but neither is he outwardly abusive, and his mother seems genuinely kind and loving. Perhaps the idea is that his parents need to be more actively involved?
The same goes for Flash. He talks fondly in generalities about fellow "below the line" crew members, but we're left wishing we could hear more stories about films he worked on and the workmates he evidently loved.
Still, it all comes back to Christopher Plummer and the magic with which he imbues Flash. Nearing 80, Plummer remains dashing, debonair, handsome and powerful. (Witness his recent turns in Syriana, The New World and Inside Man). From appearances alone, he's not believable as a washed-up and bitter man. The careless dress and grooming helps, though ultimately it's the expressions in Plummer's face and the dead spaces in his eyes that convey years of sadness and regret. How he does it, I have no idea, but I'm very glad he can be so convincing, and he makes it essential to seek out Man in the Chair.
Check out the official site to view photos and the trailer and read more about the film.