AFI 2021: Andrew Garfield’s sincere, try-hard acting style is a perfect fit for the late Jonathan Larson, the author and protagonist of this musical
Based on “Rent” and now “tick, tick…Boom!,” it seems fair to say that in the worlds that late composer and playwright Jonathan Larson created on stage, there is nothing more important, more vital, than art — and especially artists.
Both of these musicals not only champion the significance of creators and the integrity of their work, but also openly and repeatedly mock commercialism, seeking any degree of financial comfort, and quite frankly, doing anything except what you deeply care about. And to be fair, in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was no greater transgression for a young person (or especially their cultural hero) to commit than to “sell out.”
Three decades after Larson first began performing “tick, tick…Boom!,” that notion has changed significantly; if you haven’t figured out some way to monetize your creativity these days, you’re a sucker. Unfortunately, it’s this generational tension that undercuts Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Larson’s breakthrough work, even if he makes an otherwise skillful debut as a feature film director.
Perhaps because Miranda’s an admitted disciple of the “Rent” creator that the “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” creator translates the 1991 musical to the screen so affectionately, but even with a dazzling, urgent performance by Andrew Garfield at its center, “tick, tick…Boom!” needs a more critical or at least more self-aware eye to recreate the kind of scruffy profundity and insight that it must have possessed as a response to decades of bloated Broadway pageantry.
Garfield plays Jonathan Larson, an ambitious young playwright living in an overstuffed, suitably adorable New York apartment with his longtime best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús, “The Boys in the Band”). As his 30th birthday nears, Larson worries that his moment to break through has passed, or at least it’s lagging too far behind those of the playwrights that he looks up to for inspiration.
When he lands a low-budget workshop for his long-gestating Orwellian musical “Superbia,” Larson anticipates the success that will come tumbling effortlessly after it, fulfilling his artistic goals. But before he can successfully lead a workshop of his play, his benefactor Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman) insists he write an additional — and crucial — song for the second act, a note he’d previously ignored even when it was previously given by his hero Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford).
Despite his ability to write a song about virtually anything, Larson gets struck with writer’s block, and becomes consumed with working on it at the expense of everything else in his life, including Michael, who traded his aspirations of being an actor for a lucrative advertising job, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), a dancer entertaining a job opportunity that would force her to move away.
As the minutes tick away until the day of the workshop, he becomes more and more desperate. But even after making an eleventh-hour breakthrough that he hopes will get his musical to the finish line, Larson is forced to acknowledge some of the costs of his dedication to his dream and, more frighteningly than that, contemplate what he’ll do next if the debut of “Superbia” isn’t immediately met with critical and commercial success.
On a level of sheer cinematic flourish, Miranda’s adaptation is a triumph; he really harnesses Larson’s songs for the screen and gives them tremendous life, whether or not you’d seen them before on stage. In an early number featuring Jonathan and Michael, as the latter moves into a fancy new apartment, Miranda plays with camera speeds in a way that feels fun and exciting, and for the most part he balances the black-box simplicity of Larson’s performance of his own musical as a form of narration, the romanticized squalor of low-rent New York living, and the more calculated theatricality of his main character’s digressive fantasies.
Keeping the film under two hours was a very good idea; the adapted screenplay by Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) is lean and mean, shuffling Larson through his artistic struggles and personal epiphanies without too much of the kind of operatic indulgence that might seem at home on a stage but quickly starts to lag on screen.
But if 30 was a real and painful threshold for artists like Larson (or at least his fictionalized alter ego) to measure their success or failure against in 1990, that no longer feels like the case; even without the 40+-year-old movie-star success stories that inspire hopefuls to believe they can achieve any goal at any age, the barometer for achievement is no longer quite as tightly tethered to the young.
Consequently, either in the writing or directing, “tick, tick…Boom!” would have been better served with a greater degree of self-awareness, or even an understated bit of humor over the precipice at which Larson has placed himself. Though the character has not yet learned the deeper truth that creativity is a game of inches, Larson has not only obliviously but unnecessarily set himself at fourth down and goal with six seconds on the game clock, and the movie should acknowledge that self-imposed burden a little more astutely.
Given that the piece began as a solo work for Larson, it seems appropriate that the other characters revolve around him and, in some cases, quite literally wait for him to give them something to do. But more could have been done to dimensionalize them as more than life lessons waiting to unveil themselves to the earnest and hard-working, if occasionally self-absorbed, artist. And if not, then more pressure should have been applied to make the argument that some guy’s play, even one written by a nascent genius like Larson, isn’t the actual most important thing in the world.
The real Larson evidently made that argument twice, here and also in “Rent,” and in neither case was he right. And even if Miranda’s film ends on a hopeful note of persistence, built on the distant foundation of Larson’s acknowledgement he’s been a lousy friend and partner, there’s still a persistent naivete that art will and should change the world, and that nothing else matters as much.
Ultimately, however, Miranda’s directorial debut is still a very good film, and in the central role, Garfield’s usual deeply sincere, try-hard acting style actually works to the character’s advantage: He’s utterly convincing as a talented, overzealous playwright. But even if this adaptation gives Miranda two deserved wins in one calendar year, it also showcases the ways his skills have not fully or maturely translated from one medium to the other — or perhaps, in his effort to tackle someone else’s material, he yielded to the sentiments that he palpably loved at the expense of appropriately updating or even interrogating that material for contemporary audiences who don’t have his history or relationship with it.
In the end, what’s oddest about Miranda’s approach to this material is that it comes to the same conclusion as his own musical “In the Heights,” but somehow takes away the opposite lesson — namely, that for most of the people around a dreamer, life goes on, and just getting by is often more than enough of an achievement. Regardless, “tick, tick…Boom!” is an auspicious accomplishment, engaging and energetic and affecting, and another reminder that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the few artists who’s actually accomplished enough to earn the unfettered luxury of spending all day creating.
“tick, tick…BOOM!” opens in US theaters Nov. 12 and on Netflix Nov. 19.
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