The Two Faces of January is proof positive that sometimes not even good actors can save a bad script. Doubly tricky, the first third of the movie, right before the wheels of the plot fall off and the worst of some cringeworthy clichéd dialogue finds utterance, you’ll think you’re watching a pretty good film. It’s a pity – the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith novel, so although I’m not personally familiar with the source material, I can assume there’s some quality there. Plus you can add that this is a movie that spends its entire runtime in the company of Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac, and all three turn in quality performances, all things considered. The pieces are there, and you can tell that this movie was very nearly a runaway success. But somewhere in the details, writer/director Hossein Amini wasn’t quite able to put it all together.
In 1962, a young American expat named Rydal (Isaac) finds himself living in Athens, Greece and working as a private tour guide and pulling small cons on tourists unfamiliar with the Greek language and currency. A rich American couple, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Mortensen and Dunst) catch his eye; Chester because he looks like Rydal’s recently deceased father and Colette because, well, she’s a young beauty, and Rydal’s a bit of a ladies man. After showing them around some, he accidentally witnesses Chester trying to dispose of the body of a P.I. working for some bookies Chester stole money from back in the States. In no small part due to his budding attraction to Colette, Rydal agrees to help the couple get fake passports and flee the country.
What’s great about the setup is that it combines a couple well-worn plots into something new. There’s the thriller aspect of fugitives trying to stay one step ahead of both the law and the mob, but there’s also a fresh take on a love triangle – Colette and Chester are happily married on the whole, but neither party is without flaw, and Rydal is too closely involved with them both to act aggressively on his romantic feelings.
The problem is that this is a setup better suited to the format of the novel it’s taken from than a feature film. The best moments of the film come early on, before the protagonists get too far in their attempts to run. Rydal works as an existentially conflicted young man still able to escape on simple living in a foreign land, and Chester and Colette are both most fun when they’re living as rich socialites on leisurely holiday. Of course, the story is about their relationships more than any action, so all three must eventually have an arc, but this is thrust on them far too quickly. The movie has some successful isolated moments trying to pull it off, such as when Colette finds a more willing dance partner in the vital Rydal than the aging Chester, but the supposed tension in this relationship in particular is thrust to the fore far more quickly than is believable. Several hundred pages of a book is sufficient space to gradually move characters along a complex arc; arriving at the same finish line in a mere 96 minutes is nigh impossible.
And still, the quality performances from the leads might have saved the movie if not for some truly dreadful dialogue. I watched the film with a couple friends of mine, and when Rydal first agrees to help Chester and Colette get out of the country, one of them leaned over and said in mock Rydal dialogue, “I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for you.” Not an hour later, I heard exactly the same thing, but this time the line came from Oscar Isaac. Just start calling out clichéd love triangle lines, and you’ll guess half a dozen quotes verbatim.
While the low point of the movie comes in the middle third, with the sussing out of the love story, the illogic of the ending can’t be ignored either. I won’t go into spoilers, but suffice it to say that it’s once again clear that we’ve missed some of the important character development. The final 20 minutes are all about action, which is fine in principle because it forces the characters to act on the new choices they’ve made, to take actions they wouldn’t at the beginning of the movie. And to be fair, the ending of The Two Faces of January does this, but we haven’t had a chance to develop a close understanding of the characters, so their new decisions, while they might be revolutionary, carry virtually no weight.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
I really did like the first 30 minutes of this movie. The Grecian setting provides an interesting backdrop for characters who in their initial conception are active, nuanced, and brought to life by quality performances from Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst. But it’s all too clear that The Two Faces of January is based on something that gave us far more time with those characters than this movie is ever able to do. The arcs the characters are intended to go through require time and a deep understanding of their personal motivations. Writer/director Hossein Amini hasn’t found a way to translate that from the language of a novel into the language of film, and really, hasn’t even managed to smooth out a number of the sharp edges, like quite a bit of dialogue that sounds like holdover from an early draft of the screenplay. Actors can do a lot to improve a movie, but they can’t do enough to redeem this script.