There’s a part of me that wants to laud this film for its craft, and its fine lead performances…and just leave it at that. But I can’t–because I know when I’m being manipulated. I like Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash”, and I believe that J. K. Simmons performance as maestro Terence Fletcher is outstanding. Miles Teller is also quite good as young music student Andrew, who endures increasing levels of abuse at the hands of his instructor. This is a dynamic film with a pulse-pounding trajectory. But I’m calling “bullshit” on its level of extremes and clichés, and when a script commits enough phony blunders to pull me “out” of the story (see “Argo”), is the creative team really doing its job? And Mr. Chazelle both wrote and directed this, so it all falls on his head. “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s 2nd feature, and at the tender age of 29, I’d like to suggest that subtlety and restraint are two things it appears he still needs to learn.
Andrew Neiman (Mr. Teller) is a 19-year-old jazz percussionist accepted into NYC’s Shaffer Conservatory…aka “the best music school in the country”. Raised by his complacent, English teacher, single father (a very good Paul Reiser), Andrew quickly shows his burgeoning ambition, by working his way into a successful audition for Shaffer’s renowned jazz conductor, Terence Fletcher (Mr. Simmons, headed for an Oscar nomination). Imposing as he is, Fletcher is thoughful and courteous at first–but then rapidly turns dark and violent in his desire to have Andrew keep his “tempo”. In no time, Fletcher is recreating an anecdote he tells about Charlie “Bird” Parker, by flinging a metal folding chair. And then there are bloody hands and drumsticks, repeated slaps to the face, and even a break-up with the pretty candy counter girl (a good Melissa Benoist) from the local movie house–all in the pursuit of artistic “greatness”. No matter what it takes.
There is a complexity to the student-teacher relationship in “Whiplash” that I strongly admire, and I credit the lead actors for that–along with certain aspects of Mr. Chazelle’s screenplay. But the movie started to lose me when Fletcher threw that chair. And his histrionics are ramped up to the level of sadistic drill sergeant before all is said and done. And how many goofy clichés and coincidences am I expected to accept? Finding your “dream girl” selling popcorn at the arty, foreign movie theater? Yeah, I fantasized about that one for years after seeing something similar played out on a 1970’s network television show. A flat bus tire, followed by a car accident, leading to an unconcerned group of musicians witnessing crimson drip from your hair…while you play? Please. And the late night walk past the jazz club to find…really? Does something like this ever occur? And is that the only way the screenwriter could set the big finale in motion? It’s just too much for me to buy.
The editing, pacing and music of “Whiplash” is electrifying though–and it’s poised to receive a lot of awards season attention. It plays like a sports movie, and you may have to remind yourself occasionally that you’re not experiencing another sequel to “Rocky”. J. K. Simmons is so extraordinary in his depiction of Fletcher, but I witnessed an interview where even he found the character’s histrionics excessive. But as an interpreter of the role as written, Simmons is top-notch. He’s the best thing about the film, and he will enrapture you. However, there’s no way I’m swallowing that a guy gets away with what he does, so publicly and so frequently. It rings false, and I wondered what a bit less volcanic of an approach would have brought to the table. Mr. Teller, with his mostly subservient portrayal, does manage to counterbalance Mr. Simmons quite well. And I’m fond of the ambiguity eventually presented concerning the “necessity” of Fletcher’s “technique”. However, what would be truly disturbing, would be to find that Mr. Chazelle didn’t intend any ambiguity at all.