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James Dean (March 26/02)

The life of legendary actor James Dean is explored in this made-for-TNT biopic, but oddly enough, the flick contains few references to the films that made him famous.

The movie tells the James Dean story in a linear fashion, starting with his childhood and progressing through his tumultuous (and short) Hollywood career until his untimely death. We see Dean's remarkably speedy journey from penniless struggling actor to world-famous movie star, but the consistent subtext is Dean's puppy-dog obsession with gaining his father's approval. His dad is shown to be the sort of fellow that clearly isn't cut out for fatherhood, ignoring his son in favor or whatever happens to be nearby (whether it be a newspaper or a television). So, when Dean becomes one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood and even makes a trip to his childhood home with famed director Elia Kazan, his father nonetheless dismisses him (he was expecting dinner guests, you see).

While this desperate need for approval from his father provides the film with some much needed emotion, it does tend to get a little out of hand. The film seems to be saying that Dean never achieved the happiness fame and fortune was supposed to bring until he heard his father tell him he was proud of him. And while this is a noble and even old-fashioned point-of-view, I'm not entirely sure I believe it. But we're given no evidence to point to the contrary, so it's an assumption we have to take at face value.

But the movie is entertaining, in a movie-of-the-week sort of way. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason, the film never dwells much on Dean's films. When the time finally comes to detail the making of Rebel without a Cause - a seminal film that not only immortalized Dean, but still holds up today as the ultimate teen rebellion flick - the movie devotes a scant few minutes of screen time to its production. The rest of the movie is concerned mostly with Dean's various relationships (with his father, his forbidden girlfriend, his friends), but curiously never explores his odd acting style. We learn that he was inspired by Marlon Brando's "method" of acting, but never much more than that.

As James Dean, James Franco is appropriately brooding. The rest of the cast is an eclectic bunch (Michael Moriarty as his father, Enrico Colantoni as director Kazan, etc.), but this is really Franco's show. He's up to the challenge of portraying an iconic legend like Dean, and never resorts to mimicry. It's just too bad the film had to be so bland and unassuming - the opposite of James Dean himself.

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