By Armond White
Maybe if Ron Howard hadn’t been the most adorable child actor in Hollywood history, he wouldn’t have gone on to be a filmmaker who makes everything banal–cutesifying every story, no matter the topic, into movies so dull and unoriginal reviewers reflexively–mistakingly–call them “well crafted.”
Howard’s second career might be even more distinctive, though less loveable, than his first: He’s Hollywood’s reigning chameleon director–no appreciable point of view, just morphing through various impersonal styles to fit any given commercial project: from early Roger Corman yahoo fare like his 1977 race-car rebel debut Grand Theft Auto, which put him on the charts (thus on the industry’s directorial map); to his TV-derived, friendly comedies (Night Shift, Gung Ho, Splash, Howard’s best period and the height of the Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel partnership); followed by his long stretch of Spielberg imitations (the dreary, gee-whiz spectacles Cocoon, Willow, Apollo 13,); then the star vehicles (Parenthood, Backdraft, Far and Away, Ransom, The Paper, How the Grinch Stole Christmas); and back to the vehicular traffic of celebrity epics (A Beautiful Mind, The Missing, Edtv, Cinderella Man, The DaVinci Code, Angels & Demons, Frost/Nixon, Howard’s worst period).
Subject matter alone puts Howard’s new film Rush, about the 1970s rivalry of Formula 1 race car gladiators James Hunt and Niki Lauda, in the latter category. It is another genre-chameleon movie but more puzzling than the others: the poorly constructed racing scenes dare you to be excited. And the relatively unknown stars (beefy blond Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and anxious-eyed Daniel Bruhl as Lauda) are not exactly box-office draws.
Howard’s usual Hollywood celebrity-worship is literalized through the film’s rather obscure protagonists-Hunt and Lauda are more lost to history than Howard’s Opie years but standard material for star-fucker screenwriter Peter Morgan. Morgan is as impersonal as Howard, making a career out of celebrity bio-pics from The Last King of Scotland and The Queen to Frost/Nixon—also imitations of a kind. These films have nothing to do with politics beyond the spectacle of power and most Hollywood films made on Howard’s budgetary level are also, essentially, exercises of power: projects that Howard and producer Brian Grazer can make happen even though they’re not worth making.
If Howard was a film artist, Rush might have explored the testosterone urge of drivers who put themselves outside the safety zone of pedestrian sports. Morgan’s celeb-fixation prefers superficial “personal” anecdotes about Hunt/Lauda’s sponsorships, girl-chasing and marriages. This has less sports substance than Morgan’s best script for the Manchester soccer film The Damned United. As if deepening the shallow personality clash of Frost/Nixon (that disingenuous dialogue between propagandistic political effigies), Howard and Morgan proffer the secret antagonism/admiration between Hunt and Lauda. This proves similarly disingenuous. One foul scene has Hunt assault a journalist who embarrasses Lauda at a press conference. Howard’s use of crowd-pleasing brutality proves Opie has turned dopey.
The 1970s period details (including music) are so glib the movie never catches imaginative hold and the shift to racing sequences hustle viewers into visual chaos—especially the climactic race in Japan during inclement weather. Here Howard imitates Michael Mann, going for existential blur through cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s confusion of film/video abstraction. This is a long way from the pellucid beauty that d.p. Mikael Salomon achieved in Far and Away and Backdraft.
Rush coulda/shoulda been a kinetic thrill but if you recall the embarrassing action sequences in The DaVinci Code, the inert Apollo 13 which climaxed when white collar NASA workers stood around applauding, you know Howard has no skill for movement or montage. Instead of imitating past race car movies like Grand Prix, Greased Lightning, Heart Like a Wheel, Bobby Deerfield or Eat My Dust–not exactly a stellar genre–Howard takes the Hollywood Oscar-winner route of ersatz style. That’s what adorable kids who become genre-chameleons do.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair