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Rush (2013)

Pace Cadets

Let me tell you something. We need a two-and-a-half-hour movie about The Doors? No, we don't, folks. I can sum it up for you in five seconds okay? 'I'm drunk, I'm nobody. I'm drunk, I'm famous. I'm drunk, I'm fuckin' dead.

--Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer

In America, you can sue anyone for anything. Winning your case, however, is another matter entirely.

I have an 8am meeting with my attorney tomorrow morning, during which we'll discuss what kind of false-advertising suit I can bring against Ron Howard for his new film, Rush. In fairness, I might have to bypass Opie and set my sights on whatever ad agency dreamt up this thing's utterly false poster and previews. Either way, I'm out for blood.

Based on the publicity materials, I had every right to expect that Howard's biopic of late, British Formula One racer James Hunt would star Chris Hemsworth in the lead role, and follow his years-long rivalry with German driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). I mean, the actor's face is the poster, and he's all over the trailer. So, imagine my surprise when the film turns out to be a profile of Lauda, with Hunt popping up occasionally to act as the ass-hat supervillain in this bizarre comic-book movie about race cars.

I should be thankful for the switcheroo, I guess, seeing as Hunt is the least likable character I've seen posing as a protagonist in quite awhile. Here's the skinny: in the mid-1970s, Hunt made a name for himself on the Formula Three circuit, collecting minor-league accolades and groupies. During an awards ceremony, he boasts of flushing his expensive education down the toilet in favor of drinking lager out of trophy cups, and promotes his ignorance of all things non-racing as if shooting a PSA for delinquency. On the topic of groupies, we watch as he hooks up with a nurse (Natalie Dormer) while explaining in voice-over how easy it is for daredevils to nail women. And despite her hanging around for several scenes, she is unceremoniously dropped from the film after outliving her usefulness to Hunt (and screenwriter Peter Morgan).

When I say "unceremoniously dropped", I don't mean that her character was dumped during a heated argument. I mean she disappears, and is never mentioned again. Enter marquee star Olivia Wilde as Suzy, a sassy model who catches Hunt's eye. They meet, get married in the next scene, and are one round of paperwork away from divorce fifteen minutes later. In real life, her inability to figure out that an alcoholic man-whore may not exactly be husband material would be considered sad. But the movie's collapsed timeline turns drama into high comedy, as their relationship sprouts, blossoms, and rots quicker than a tire rotation.

We'll circle back to the montage problem in a minute. Niki Lauda is presented as the film's villain, precisely because Hemsworth is bankable and attractive. Of the two abrasive egomaniacs at the story's center, Bruhl's character at least has an arc--as well as an amazing-to-behold self-awareness. The bored, un-academic son of a wealthy businessman, Lauda walked away from the family fortune to pursue the one thing he was ever good at: racing. He takes out a bank loan to buy his way into Formula One (after suffering a humiliating defeat to Hunt during his first Formula Three race), and spends the rest of his time teaching his sponsor's crew how to re-design their cars to break records. Unlike Hunt, Lauda's over-confidence is based on an innate passion and understanding of the sport--rather than simply being gifted with good looks, an outgoing personality, and an ungodly tolerance for booze.

We follow Lauda through defeats and triumphs, watching as he uses defeat and victory in equal measure to better himself. He even falls in love (in his own weird way) with a woman he meets named Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). I don't know what Marlene does, except hang out at parties and eventually get married to Lauda (she pops up in a business suit at the end of the picture, if that's any clue). She's another victim of both the film's ridiculous inability to stay in one time period for more than ten minutes, as well as its latent misogyny.

Tragically, Rush has all the hallmarks of a great film. Hemsworth and Bruhl excel in their roles, and if they'd been handed an actual screenplay (instead of mini-dramatizations that might pop up in an ESPN documentary), maybe I would've been able to understand their characters--and care about what happened to them. And while it's clear that Howard is more interested in the "human" story than the racing scenes, he does nothing to disprove Morgan's running joke about racing being nothing more than cars driving in circles really fast until something either blows up or crosses an arbitrary finish line.

If you're into racing, you may get something out of the cool cars zooming past and ramming into each other--unless, of course, you've seen other racing pictures. Despite the Fincher-esque CGI gear-porn of pistons firing and leather gloves gripping wheels with the intensity of a thousand suns, much of the action in Rush feels downright pedestrian. Lauda's running narration also drains all suspense from the film's big set-piece: a climactic race in which the driver, who was severely burned in a recent accident, returns to compete in equally unsafe conditions. We know before the race starts that the winner's identity doesn't matter: it's all about men being men, and mutual respect, and the age-old code of zzzzzzz...

By film's end, Hunt is still an airheaded champion, a drunk, and a poon-hound; Lauda is a scarred perfectionist; and...that's that. Howard and Morgan likely bet on how many Kleenexes audience members would whip out when they learned that Hunt died of a heart attack at age forty-five. The fact might have registered as a tragedy had his fate not been the logical end to a life comprised entirely of driving in literal and figurative circles--each more pointless and uninteresting than the last. Hunt's greatest contribution to the world, it seems (based solely on what's presented here), is his uncanny resemblance to an actor who would one day employ hundreds of people for several months in service of a tepid star vehicle about his life (kind of).

I walked away from Rush with neither an appreciation for James Hunt, nor an interest in learning more about him and Formula One racing. That's not a good thing when it comes to mega-profile Oscar-bait pictures. Maybe someday, after my decisive lawsuit victory has siphoned tens of millions of dollars from Howard's ironically named company, Imagine Entertainment, I'll spring for a compelling version of Hunt's life story. Fans of science fiction will love it.

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