Going bald is the best thing that ever happened to Jude Law. Britain’s prettiest export did the best he could with his burden of good looks. He played a genetic ideal in Gattaca, a robotic ideal in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his golden god perfection got him killed.
Hollywood is hard on beautiful men, at least the ones who want to be taken seriously. It prefers its great talents slightly askew. Handsome actors who want to break out of romances and sexual thrillers have only three options: get fat (Marlon Brando, Alec Baldwin), get old (Robert Redford, Rob Lowe), or get weird (Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Matthew McConaughey). Law stalled as long as he could. But after a 10-year stretch of solid, overlooked work, and his 40th birthday, he’s embracing the full trifecta of notice-me-damn-it options.
The Dom Hemingway Law plays seems like the usual London lout, a big-talking thief who’s spent the last 12 years in jail. If life were like the movies, half the men in England would be in organized crime. Writer-director Richard Shepard doesn’t have a new take on the pubs-and-guns genre, with its wisecracks and cracked skulls. But in Law’s hands, his character’s heart beats with fresh, bilious blood. Hemingway is entitled, animalistic, and vulnerable; imagine a chihuahua weaned on veal. He added a decade to his sentence by refusing to fink on his boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demián Bichir), but he’s no suck-it-up soldier. When he arrives at Fontaine’s villa to recoup a reward for his silence, he gets drunk and demands that his murderous boss throw in his girlfriend as a bonus.
He gets drunk a lot. Hemingway is all highs and lows, like an elevator that only goes to the penthouse. It’s hard to know when to take him seriously. He barely seems to know himself, but Law surfs Hemingway’s sobriety and mood changes with skill, using pint and wine glasses as tools akin to Fred Astaire’s cane: When he’s happy, he handles crystal tumblers as though they were cheap Dixie cups; when furious, he points a champagne flute like a knife. Sober, he’s hungover with shame, but he’ll never stop being self-destructive. If he shot himself in the foot, he’d claim it was an act of god.
Law wears the role like a gorilla suit. He walks heavy-footed and fast, and added 30 pounds to his frame by drinking 10 Coca-Colas a day. (Somebody alert Morgan Spurlock.) Yet, when Hemingway is having fun, he’s surprisingly agile. Gifted with two hookers and three days’ worth of cocaine, he leaps over a bar counter and slings the nearest girl over his shoulder. Even he seems to view himself as a character, albeit without self-reflection. When scared or happy or just fruitlessly agitated, he bleats his own name — “I’m Dom Hemingway!” — as a mantra.
If only Shepard’s movie lived up to his leading man. It’s merely a frame for a character portrait, with Shepard’s camera screwing our eyes to Law’s performance and pasting in supporting actors and situations for no larger purpose than to see his reaction to them. The plot is so episodic that Law simply barrels through it like a pinball. Wham! He’s wheedling the son of his enemy to hire him as a safecracker. Kapow! He’s getting rejected by his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones), and her apartment full of Senegalese in-laws. The hits keep coming, and we’re never sure of the score.
The most compelling stretch is Hemingway’s tense sojourn with Mr. Fontaine in France. A free-wheeling character like him needs to ricochet off someone as controlled as Bichir’s Fontaine, who tolerates his yapping with a killer’s confidence — he could snap his neck and never think of it again. Still, it’s tough to forgive Shepard for casting the talented Mexican actor only to force him into an unconvincing Russian accent. As a visual apology, Shepard offers Romanian lingerie model and Leo DiCaprio ex Madalina Diana Ghenea as Fontaine’s girlfriend, the siren who tantalizes Hemingway to talk his way to near-death. Ghenea isn’t given enough to do to tell if she can act. But the sloe-eyed, lush brunette commands attention just by standing still. If she turns out to have talent, too, she could inspire the next generation of directors to remake the greatest hits of Sophia Loren.
For today, however, the career that matters is Law’s. Dom Hemingway reminds us that he’s more than a pretty face, and that he’ll even trash that face if that’s what it takes. Still, the film itself is so aimless that it won’t be seen enough to make a difference. As Law selects his next flashy ne’er-do-well, perhaps he can take inspiration from one of Hemingway’s own hazy koans: “A man with no options has all the options in the world.”