Gods and Monsters


Gods and Monsters is the kind of film we all have high hopes for, and then, after we've seen it, realize that we'd deluded ourselves just by hoping, because in the event it hasn't come anywhere near our expectations.

Here is a film set in the last months of James Whale's life -- a life that begs for exploration and perhaps, in a sense, even adoration. After all, this is a man who rose from an impoverished childhood in the slums of an English mill town to become the Hollywood director of "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man," and even the musical "Showboat" -- the version with Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River." It's a fascinating body of work, with spinoffs careening down through the years from Abbott and Costello to 'The Addams Family.' He can even claim credit for making lurching the signature move of ten-year-old boys around the world.

So this film -- written and directed by Bill Condon and starring Ian McKellen as Whale, Brendan Fraser as the lawn maintenance man who comes finally to care for Whale, and Lynn Redgrave in German drag as Whale's housekeeper -- had captured the imagination even before it arrived. Unfortunately, Mr. Condon has delivered a film that's all surface and no depth. It's a film of one-liners: A thoughtless young man shows up one day, bubbling over with excitement. "I can't believe I'm meeting you!" he gushes. "No, I don't suppose you can," says Whale.

The film tells us that Whale ran from introspection and analysis, but then it goes no farther than he did, leaving us without the empathy we might well feel for this strange and talented man. It relies on conversation, but the conversation becomes repetitive and uninteresting as the film winds down toward the foreordained end. Instead of being moved, we're just relieved that it's over. There's not a moment that gives us even a hint of how Whale worked, how he might have come up with the look and feel and sound of his movies, not anything revealing Whale's creative process. Because we're told he had talent as an artist -- though all we see are his academic copies of masterpieces -- we're expected simply to assume the rest.

But unless we know him better, he will simply remain an aging wit, who ultimately bores us -- and himself -- to death.

Nor are the performances sufficient to pick up the slack. McKellen, who I think has been seriously overpraised of late -- his Richard III was a disastrous misreading of the role, and his Nazi war criminal in "Apt Pupil" was monotonous -- strolls through his lines here with clarity but no personality. He's an actor without wit playing a man who lived by his wits -- and losing, as they say.

Brendan Fraser, the lawn-boy turned sex object turned caretaker of the old man, does a credible job of showing us the way in which even a chronic loser can come to some valid insights about life, love, and himself. On the other hand, Lynn Redgrave, who's been winning honors for her performance here as the housekeeper, barely has enough of a role to count. Her stolid Germanic persona, tied to a threadbare German accent, is somehow supposed to represent the conventional morality that Whale rebelled against, combined with what is undeniably her great affection for him. Okay, but so what?

This is half a film. The look is there, but someone forgot to write the script.