Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the outcome of an existential crisis that followed the publication of Anna Karenina and all but paralyzed the writer for years, illuminates the tragedy of a wasted life with the horrible clarity unique to impending extinction: “What if my entire conscious life simply was not the real thing?” Ilyich wonders on his deathbed. It’s unclear if Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman ever arrives at so excoriating a conclusion in Bernard Rose’s aptly sweaty-palmed DV update, ivans xtc. But the director, whose last film was re-edited by the studio (and wouldn’t you know, it was an adaptation of Anna Karenina), doesn’t hold back. Rose’s hatred of the milieu is implicit in the premise: Swapping a Petersburg magistrate for a Hollywood dealmaker, ivans xtc. puts Tolstoy’s template—an experiment in antihero identification—to its ultimate test.
Like the story, the movie opens with news of Ivan’s demise reaching his callous peers, who are mostly bemused or annoyed by the inconvenience, before doubling back to detail his anguished final days. The grim cancer diagnosis arrives just as the hotshot (Danny Huston) has brokered a pact between a crazed star (Peter Weller) and a neurotic writer-director (James Merendino). It’s been said that Rose modeled Beckman on Jay Moloney, his addiction-plagued onetime agent, who was fired from the Creative Artists Agency in 1996 and killed himself three years later. (Rose recently accused CAA of attempting to suppress his movie.) While the angry Ilyich consults with a gamut of doctors, Beckman faces the abyss by partying harder; Huston’s performance, an unlikely hybrid of Eddie Izzard and young Jack Nicholson, chips away at the dying man’s calcified bravado to reveal increasingly violent pangs of self-disgust. Boldly engineering a collision between tawdry B-movie flamboyance and grandiose spiritual anomie, Rose’s film, true to its source material, provides a tenacious demonstration of death as the great equalizer—or, as Tolstoy would have it, “the only reality, and always the same falsity.”
The title of Finn Taylor’s new movie is syllabicated in the opening credits as Cher-ish—a perfect adjective, it turns out, for a batty, cheerfully crass, shape-shifting farce that just refuses to go away. Zoe (Robin Tunney), a San Francisco shrinking violet, winds up under house arrest after she’s wrongly accused of a hit-and-run. The tireless heroine, peering out Rapunzel-like from her second-floor window, gamely battles cabin fever, while Cherish itself settles into a fatiguing manic-room scenario, barely assuaged by Tim Blake Nelson’s gawky, smitten SFPD official, who visits weekly to check on Zoe’s electronic ankle bracelet. The plotting is alternately belabored and distracted, and cumulatively so inconsequential that the climactic Run Lola Run beat-the-clock plays out with zero suspense. The only flicker of thematic interest—AM radio obsession as psychopathology—is duly subsumed into a sea of desperate soundtrack come-ons. Bonus half-point: title song not by Kool & the Gang or Madonna but the Association.