Max (2002)

Is there a market for fictional movies about Hitler? John Cusack thinks so and thus stars in Max, a film that plays a game of “what ifs” with one of history’s most evil and influential man.

This “what if” captures Hitler (Noah Taylor) as a young man, just beginning to dip into politics, when he encounters Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish art dealer, who encourages his interest in painting and art as a substitute for political rabble rousing. While the idea of a movie about Hitler painting flowers and puppies might sound best suited to the realm of tasteless comedy, Max in fact pushes itself as extremely serious.

Hold on; let’s take a moment to look at this title. Why is a movie about HITLER called Max? Is this some sick attempt to slip it past the radar of protest groups? Why not be honest. How about Max & Hitler? Hitler & Max? Adolph and the Jewish Boogaloo? Cusack’s Rothman is in the film just strongly enough to justify its title. But in the shadow of the 20th century’s great Satan, who can pay attention to an idealistic, one-armed Jewish art dealer? Cusack drives his character limply headfirst into the film, a cliché of movie cliché’s in which Rothman is given all the typical political views and foibles of your average liberalistic leaning artist with a distinct hunger for capitalism, but is barely noticeable next to a guy named Hitler.

Adolph comes to Rothman with his work, hoping for confirmation of what he already knows: That he is the world’s greatest artist. Sadly, Rothman informs him that while he may have great talent, he has a long way to go, and takes it upon himself to guide young Hitler on an artistic journey. Hitler accepts, and eventually ends up having to choose between his racist, war-mongering politics and the beauty of art. Hey Hitler, let’s go pick up chicks!

All this plays out nicely enough, with enough style to keep the audience praying that somehow, even though we know the inevitable outcome, Rothman will dissuade Hitler from his political career. Barring that, perhaps he will shoot him in the chest. Max deserves at least some credit for keeping things interesting, even when we already know the ending.

Though Cusack is engaging, and Taylor does a marvelous job of looking his part, neither really succeeds in pulling his character out bland mire of this script. THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT HITLER!! The concept is scintillating, and dangerous. The story attempts to push Hitler as just a regular man who ended up taking the wrong course. That’s controversial, outlandish… so why doesn’t Max make anything out of it? Instead it seems wrapped up in movie making cliché’s, relying on silly co-incidences and happenstance to drive the story rather than meaningful, unfolded development. Attempts at a twist ending are poorly veiled and obvious, like just about everything in the movie, lacking in any real subtlety. It is here that the film falls most deeply into “what-if-land” and traverses the distance between mildly interesting curiosity and irritating exercise in futility.

It takes talent to make a lifeless movie about the most heinous man who ever lived, but Herr director/writer Menno Meyjes manages to achieve it. He nails the time period perfectly, and has the right people in all the right rolls. His concept is disturbing and unique, the setting and backgrounds he uses suit it perfectly. Yet Max comes off as a wasted effort, a perfectly exciting idea tossed out the window in what is at best a mildly dismal waste.

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