“I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.”
Whiplash has had a long, blessed year of nothing but festival and critical acclaim. Now that it’s been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it also holds the record for the lowest budget movie to ever make that shortlist. That is usually the kind of combination of ingredients that would have me champing at the bit to see a movie. And when I first heard about Whiplash, I was. Then I watched a trailer. That two minutes was so intensely excruciating, I thought I’d never be able to sit through it. I don’t mean excruciating as a criticism. I mean the story being told and the characters telling it seemed too believably assholish for me to ever sit through. But, Whiplash got that Oscar nod, and I try to watch ever Best Picture nominee every year. So, here I am.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first year student at a prestigious music school where he plays the drums. One night, while practicing alone, he’s paid a visit by the school’s head conductor, Fletcher (JK Simmons). Called up as the drum alternate to the main studio band, Andrew discovers the originally stern, but encouraging Fletcher to be a full blown, megalomaniacal bully. The kind of guy who’s not averse to throwing a chair at someone’s head to inspire perfection.
At home, Andrew’s dad (Paul Reiser) is supportive and loving, but Fletcher’s mind games at school lead Andrew to resent his father, and new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist as Nicole) for what he sees as lack of ambition and passion. The more abuse perpetrated by Fletcher, the more determined Andrew is to survive it and come out stronger at the other end. The movie never tries to say Fletcher’s tactics are right or even sane, but it kind of does say they’re effective.
Here’s the thing with Whiplash, Simmons and Teller are both phenomenal in the two lead roles. And when Reiser is given his few moments to shine, he nails it too. In fact, every performance in Whiplash is great stuff. The only problem is, I never believed the ones that mattered. Or, even if I kind of believed them, I couldn’t understand them. Why does anyone give so much of a shit about drumming that they would take this kind of abuse? Showing Andrew listen to a few Buddy Rich CDs doesn’t quite do the job to make his motivation all that real.
Aaron Sorkin is the best and worst for writing these sorts of characters. When his characters are passionate and pretentious, sanctimonious and single mindedly obsessed with something that really matters, like leading the free world, you get an awesome show like The West Wing. But when his characters are passionate and pretentious, sanctimonious and single mindedly obsessed about something frivolous, like a TV show, you get tone deaf, preachy bullshit like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or The Newsroom.
Andrew and Fletcher might care this much about music and being the best, but they never gave me a reason to care about them caring this much about music and being the best.
I will say this about Whiplash though, while the aggression and antagonism between the two main characters gave me the knot in my stomach I expected after watching the trailer, the movie flew by. I never got bored, or checked how much longer was left or started waiting for it to end. It grabbed me, not because I gave a shit about its characters, but because the characters perplexed me and I needed to know why they did what they did. I never did understand them though.
Also, can we all just agree that jazz is the worst? Even when played to perfection, it just sounds like a big mess. So until you hear a character comment on it, it’s rarely clear in Whiplash whether what we’re seeing and hearing is supposed to be amazing, terrible or somewhere in between.