No thinking person will fail to anticipate the story beats in Set Fire to the Stars, an energetic, well-acted, handsomely mounted b&w literary tell-all whose script would be laughed out of the room by its famous subjects.
Celyn Jones, who co-wrote the script, stars as Dylan Thomas, brought to America by Elijah Wood’s John Malcolm Brinnin, a poetry professor whose career — for reasons the film is shaky about — depends on whether this carousing drunken genius is polite before and after his first stateside public readings. From the get-go, Set Fire feels movieland-hokey, and more dumb than the people in it: Immediately after someone asks, “How much trouble can one poet be?” the filmmakers cut to our first glimpse of Thomas, being randy trouble with college girls at a reception.
One tweedy stiff complains, “He broke my crockpot” and then, just in case we missed that this is funny, he says it again. So it’s Get Him to the Greek: The Norton Anthology Edition. Thomas-wrangling Brinnin must help the great poet pull himself together and dazzle America — and Thomas, of course, must teach Brinnin lessons about what really matters (not impressing Yalies). When he’s not pissing himself, Thomas embraces life, in this case represented by Shirley Jackson (Shirley Henderson), who gets the best scene, the only one where people talk at length and sound like writers.
Several times, Thomas takes the stage to declaim some verse, but the movie reliably drowns him out with tinkly pianos and a mush of strings — it’s the idea of the mad poet that the movies love, not actual poetry. Ridiculousness abounds: Brinnin keeps giving Thomas a letter from Thomas’s wife, which Thomas refuses to open until it’s dramatically appropriate. And when the crew heads to a diner, it’s no surprise when a beautiful, worn-out waitress barks out orders like “two 55s and a red-eye — and give it wings.”