Loosely based on Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' this searing indictment of Hollywood must be one of the most under-appreciated films of the last ten years. Danny Huston plays Ivan Beckman, a typically sleazy, coke-snorting Tinseltown agent who is forced to confront the emptiness of his life when he learns that he is dying of cancer. Amongst the many people with whom he is surrounded but cannot confide in are hotshot director Danny McTeague (James Merendino), gun-toting homophobic mega-star Don West (Peter Weller), and Ivan's girlfriend, Charlotte (Lisa Enos), who may or may not be using him to further her own ambitions. IVANS XTC. actually begins with the news of Ivan's death, and apart from the first 15 minutes or so the story is told in flashback. This works superbly because we immediately discover just how meaningless Ivan's life and career really were. Nobody really gave a damn about him (nor does anyone believe for a minute that he died of cancer rather than a cocaine OD), and his death merely serves as an inconvenience to those involved in the film project he was trying to get started (West and McTeague even have the insensitivity to confront each other in the middle of Ivan's funeral service!). When Ivan learns of his cancer he tries to binge his way to redemption through drink, drugs, and women, but there is none to be found. Nothing can ease his physical or emotional pain. He can't even find an image of beauty or happiness in his head - everything he can think of is "shit". Ivan was already a victim even before the cancer took hold. Many films have successfully attacked the excessive yet soulless Hollywood machine in recent years e.g THE PLAYER and SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, but IVAN's XTC. is perhaps even better (British writer-director Bernard Rose drew from many of his own bitter experiences). The film is shot entirely on DV (with oddly effective use of Wagner as musical accompaniment!) and this gives it a documentary-style realism (you really feel you're in the back of that limo with West as he snorts coke off Charlotte's leg). It is also to the film-makers' credit that no punches are pulled when it comes to conveying exactly what Ivan's cancer is doing to him (the visceral last reel is not for the squeamish). The performances are first-rate all round, but Huston is especially brilliant and should have had an Oscar nomination. Although Ivan is an unpleasant individual - and Rose never dresses him up to be anything but - Huston manages to elicit the viewer's sympathy simply by demonstrating Ivan's ever more desperate need for something to fill the complete void that is his quickly fading life. As far as the 'terminal illness' genre goes this film is ultimately far more moving than blatantly manipulative stuff like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and MY LIFE precisely because there is absolutely no on-screen sentimentality whatsoever. Ivan's one moment of true tenderness comes not with Charlotte or with any of his friends or family... but with a nurse he doesn't even know. The glorious closing shot is surely one the best in recent film-making history. This is a disturbing film that is at times difficult to watch. Yet at the same time it is so perceptive and involving that one feels it actually deserves several viewings. Highly recommended.
Update on Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," set in contemporary Hollywood.
October 27, 2020