Tuesday 26 November 2019

Spoiler merchants: "Driven"

In the UK, Driven was sent out as a spoiler for the more prestigious Le Mans '66, with which it shares an interest in cars as the great American plaything. Yet it soon becomes clear that the Irish writer-director team of Nick Hamm and Colin Bateman are taking a far faster and looser approach to their material than James Mangold did. This here's one of those American Hustle/American Made-style riffs on true-crime events from the terminally uncool fag-end of the 1970s, so it's not long before the screen falls subject to hairpieces, cocaine, wide lapels, minor disco hits and self-consciously tacky production design. Its centrepiece is the DMC 12, that winged automotive creation that was dead as a dodo by the time Doc Brown revived it for time-travel purposes in 1985's Back to the Future; in an early scene, we see its distinctive chassis being sketched by John DeLorean himself, played by Lee Pace beneath a grey cloud of hair that, together with the actor's never more fulsome eyebrows, suggests the young Sam Waterston has appointed himself head of some Californian religious cult. That the film isn't your straightforward hymn to industry is evident from the fact our protagonist isn't DeLorean, but Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis), a wheedling hustler turned FBI snitch, who became so distracted by his neighbour DeLorean's regal lifestyle that he forgot to do what his exasperated handler (Corey Stoll) wanted him to do, and got everybody in more trouble yet. The Le Mans movie has been thrilling audiences with the sight of men working together in the pursuit of the happiness that follows from travelling at frictionless high speed; Driven, by contrast, is a car crash waiting to happen.

Hamm and Bateman have given it a fairly conventional structure: the film opens with Hoffman being briefed for an appearance on the witness stand that provides the cue for regular flashbacks. Yet for those of us who weren't aware of this story, other elements prove far less predictable. For one thing, we're unsure whose trial this is for at least half the running time, those flashbacks show up Hoffman's testimony as between 75-80% hooey, and our protagonist's erratic behaviour means we have little clue which direction any sequence is headed in. What drives Driven is Jim's slavering envy of his neighbour's swimming pool and gorgeous wife (Isabel Arriaza), yet even his green-to-the-gills jealousy has nothing on that of Hoffman's drug-dealing associate Hetrick (Michael Cudlitz) and his squeeze Katy (Erin Moriarty, offering a neat Amy Adams impersonation in dispatches). You could well imagine a darker retelling of this cautionary anecdote, one which left blood on someone's bodywork; it's just that Reagan-era period movies with an accessibly knowing tone have made a fair bit of money in recent times, and so we find ourselves watching what often resembles yet another West Hollywood fancy dress party. Hamm can't quite match that mad scientist David O. Russell for mid-scene crackle and pop, but he fosters an antsy status anxiety that feels oddly contemporary: he gives us characters desperate to grab that big brass ring, no matter who or what they take down in the process.

He's helped considerably by an ensemble operating on or about the same lowish level of celebrity: this is one of those instances where not having an out-and-out star attached has presumably dented a movie's commercial chances (Driven has all but disappeared from cinemas a fortnight after its release), but actually works better for the film itself, shifting our sympathies around from scene to scene. Though he has a nicely ironic moment as he, too, blunders into an FBI sting ("John DeLorean always leads from the front"), Pace's JDL registers as a wispy enigma - tanned yet oddly colourless - as our millionaires and billionaires tend to be; Hamm and Bateman rightly sense the real action is to be found around the pathetically grounded Hoffman. Sudeikis, whose name should appear on any list of the decade's most improved performers, demonstrates a real gift for amusing weaselry: clock the rehearsed look of dumbness he forces as someone points out that Jim's associate is a drug dealer, or the shit-eating grin that spreads across his face as he realises he's usurped the company #2 in DeLorean's affections. Hoffman is a liability of a protagonist; Sudeikis's skill is to betray just enough of this snitch's very human weakness - his need to be admired, to belong - to render him oddly likeable. The coda leaves him where he probably deserves, all told, yet what precedes it is the kind of movie American cinema isn't meant to be making right now: non-PG-13, with no superheroes or name creatives, and only a light smattering of recognisable faces, playing characters who wouldn't immediately pass a relatability test. It's expressing gratitude for scraps, perhaps - hey, welcome to film criticism in 2019 - but just encountering Driven on the release slate is encouraging; that it should prove more than halfway watchable is all bonus.

Driven is now playing in selected cinemas.

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