WHIPLASH * * 1 / 2
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist and Paul Reiser. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
I’ve never quite understood why it’s become a pejorative to refer to a movie as “manipulative.” Truth is, most of us go to the movies to be manipulated. That’s kind of the whole point. Writer-director Damien Chazelle — at least on the evidence of this sophomore feature, Whiplash — is a master manipulator. The movie is a sleek machine that works you over and bats you around until the climax incites the audience into the kind of frenzy I haven’t seen in an auditorium since Rocky beat Drago. It’s viscerally thrilling, and distressingly hollow.
Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew, as aspiring young jazz drummer studying at a New York conservatory. Hopelessly devoted to his craft, the kid catches the ear of this school’s legendary instructor, Terence Fletcher. Played by the great J.K. Simmons as if auditioning for the lead in an R. Lee Ermey biopic, Fletcher is a bullet-headed, ball-busting martinet – an emotionally abusive sadist of almost super-villain proportions. He recruits Andrew for his competitive Studio Band and then proceeds to humiliate, badger and berate his new pupil to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
It’s Fletcher’s belief that if Jo Jones hadn’t thrown a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head during a gig for which he was ill-prepared, the wet-behind-the-ears saxophonist never would have buckled down and become Bird. Fletcher throws a lot of cymbals, and plenty of other stuff too. He’s had it up to here with a generation raised on participation trophies and he excoriates the words “good job.” Fletcher demands excellence, no matter how many obscenities, homophobic epithets and pieces of furniture he has to hurl at his students to get the desired result.
The sheer pleasure of watching J.K. Simmons in this role should not be understated. A key utility player in this past decade’s films finally stepping into the spotlight, he conducts temper tantrums with mathematical precision, at times diabolically lulling the kids into a chummy sense of security before unleashing his splenetic rage. Clad in black muscle tees, Fletcher is often half-glimpsed lurking in the shadows like a B-Movie monster. (If I’ve learned anything from Whiplash and the 1980 Fame, it’s that Performing Arts Schools in New York City are lit like the Corleone family living room.)
Andrew flourishes under his mentor’s drill sergeant methodology, and the film begins to feel like a sick parody of inspirational teacher movies. Desperate never to end up like his schmucky father (Paul Reiser, perfectly cast) the kid callously tosses aside his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and practices all day and night until his hands bleed — recurring shots of which Chazelle is a bit overly fond. Whiplash subscribes to the notion that artistic greatness requires monastic self-abnegation — a canard that’s ruined many young men’s lives and gets taken out behind the woodshed in next week’s Listen Up Philip.
Expanded from a short film that similarly dominated Sundance in 2013 (this story has won so many festival awards in one form or another I half-expect juries to start inventing new categories in which to give it prizes) Whiplash raises a lot of pertinent questions about bullying and self-discipline, only to sheepishly back away without exploring them in any depth. Chazelle’s script leans on a couple of eye-rolling contrivances, and I think it’s long past time to retire the de rigueur, out-of-nowhere car accident tossed in at the end of the Second Act to raise the stakes whenever screenwriters can’t figure out a way to do so organically.
Of course, nothing else matters if you can wow ‘em with the ending, and Whiplash has a doozy. Andrew and Fletcher finally square off onstage in a kinetic, feverishly prolonged musical crescendo. It’s a breathtaking sequence, with editor Tom Cross’ syncopated Fosse cuts ramping up the intensity to an almost surreal, nearly unbearable pitch. Whiplash has the kind of finale that makes you momentarily forget all your reservations about everything that came before. No surprise to discover that Damien Chazelle was a musician before he became a filmmaker. His real gift is for playing a crowd.