The story goes: a young Xavier Dolan wrote fan letters to Leonardo Dicaprio, and as an adult, he considered what the fallout would have been had an A-lister actually begun a correspondence with a young child and been found out. The resulting film is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a didactic, self-important melodrama that feigns profundity while only shallowly probing its characters and conceits. The film is stupidly structured as an interview between a reluctant journalist (Thandie Newton) and the aforementioned child, Rupert (now grown, played by Ben Schnetzer), a framework that exists exclusively to provide instructive exposition. Rather than straightforwardly relate the story of Rupert’s pen-pal relationship with heartthrob actor John Donovan (Kit Harrington), an overnight sensation trapped between his public success and covert sexuality, Dolan habitually brings us back to the present so that the smug interviewer (a stand-in for society and all of its normalized judgments) can be lectured on notions of identity, privacy, and art. When Dolan abandons this black hole of a concept, there are glimpses of the tenderness that often works so well in his films: a particular high point finds John in the bath, his brother (Jared Keeso) and mother (Susan Sarandon) mirroring his jubilance as “Hanging by a Moment” pounds from the radio, and all three enjoying a moment of respite. But even these moments lead us to Dolan the pedant, whose explicit articulation of ideas obscures a career-long attention to character and form.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.