If there were truth in advertising standards for film titles, "Max" would never get away with calling itself "Max." At the very least it would have to be "Max and Adolph" or maybe "Hitler: The Early Years," a behind-the-music look at the 20th century's greatest Satan when he was the kind of young and footloose guy someone might actually ask, "Do you want to meet some girls?"
While the thought of the Führer out on a date sounds like a scene from the musical "Springtime for Hitler" that enlivened Mel Brooks' "The Producers," "Max," written and directed by Menno Meyjes, wants very much to be taken very seriously. Wouldn't it be instructive, the film posits, to view Hitler as the human being he undoubtedly was and examine the forces at work during the formative time he spent in 1918 Munich after World War I came, for Germany, to an ignominious end?
Unfortunately, just because people are objecting to "Max" for all the wrong reasons doesn't make it a good film, and it's not. It's a bizarre curiosity memorable mainly for the way it fritters away its potentially interesting subject matter via a banal script, unimpressive acting and indifferent direction.
In fact, the most consistently convincing aspect of "Max" is its look. Producer Andras Hamori suggested the film be shot in his native Budapest, where, among other things, a deserted train factory was found that serves beautifully as the shabby chic Munich art gallery that is the central to the story.
The gallery is owned by Max Rothman (John Cusack), a wealthy Jewish art dealer who comes fully equipped with an elegant wife (Molly Parker) and a young, artistic mistress (Leelee Sobieski). Max wanted to be an artist himself, but he lost his right arm during the war. Now he devotes himself to selling the kind of unsentimental art typified by the work of George Grosz, who makes a standard artist's cameo appearance as a wild and crazy guy who says things like "I am George Grosz, I am for sale."
By contrast, Herr Hitler (Noah Taylor of "Shine" and "Almost Famous") has remained in the German army, which provides minimal food and a place to sleep. He is, no surprise here, a morose, easily offended type, nursing dreams of artistic greatness along with a vague distaste for the Jewish people, who he nevertheless admires for preserving the purity of their blood.
Max and Adolf meet and bond over their war experience as well as their passion for art. The dealer, in part chagrined by the bleakness of Hitler's life, keeps encouraging him to "go deeper" with his work. "I have the feeling," he says, "that you're holding something back." Hitler, for his part, feels art should reflect eternal values and keeps getting distracted from the canvas by the army officer ("Celebration's" Ulrich Thomsen) who sees him as more promising as a rabble-rouser than a painter.
Though Cusack is always interesting and Taylor certainly looks the part with a shock of black hair falling across his face, neither succeeds in enabling his character to rise above the schematic. Providing remarkably little help is the lackluster nature of the words they have to work with.
Because we can't help but know, even if these people do not, what Hitler became, the film's dialogue has an added burden to overcome. Unfortunately, "Max's" intentions end up being undercut by the innate preposterousness of lines like "Hitler, come on, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade" and "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler." While the real Hitler must have had things like that said to him in real life, it's beyond the ability of writer-director Meyjes to make them sound real on film.
Even if that dialogue could be ignored, the filmmaker (best known for his equally earnest "The Color Purple" script) really ruins things for himself with the film's contrived, fake-ironic ending. If you're making a film about Hitler, the one thing you don't want to be is glib, and that is one of the numerous pitfalls this debut director hasn't had the skill to avoid.
MPAA rating: R, for language.
Times guidelines: Mature subject matter, risqué marionette show.
John Cusack ... Max Rothman
Noah Taylor ... Adolf Hitler
Leelee Sobieski ... Liselore Von Peltz
Molly Parker ... Nina Rothman
Ulrich Thomsen ... Capt. Mayr
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Menno Meyjes. Producer Andras Hamori. Executive producers Jonathan Debin, Tom Ortenberg, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken. Screenplay Menno Meyjes. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Chris Wyatt. Costume designer Dien Van Straalen. Music Dan Jones. Production designer Ben Van Os. Art director Tibor Lázár. Running time: One hour, 48 minutes. In limited release.