Content Writer | Luke Hetherington
After suffering a heart attack, alcoholic actor Atticus Smith (Jeremy Irons) embarks on a road trip with his estranged son Adam (Jack Huston) to reach his daughter’s wedding.
Jeremy Irons is one of several British actors in their seventies (see Hopkins, Stewart, McKellan) known for the theatrical ability and often sought after to meet the ‘respectable old mentor’ casting necessity. It becomes disappointing to see them waste their time on studio roles they can sleepwalk through, but An Actor Prepares sees Irons somewhat spread his wrinkly wings into comedy — the one genre that’s dodged most of his long career. Unless you count Justice League.
The title refers to Stanislavski’s seminal book on acting. As a proponent of method acting, Stanislavski would be happy to see Irons – a sixty-nine-year-old actor – truly immerse himself in his character: a seventy-year-old actor. Facetious observation aside, Irons does show some gusto as the substance-abusing, borderline perverted Atticus, waggling around a bare backside and spitting out expletives. With the scarf-sporting Atticus preparing for his next role (God), the film sets up a strangely believable portrait of narcissism, but set against the plot of a father/son road trip, a potentially self-aware critique of actors is merely a suggestion of another, more promising film. For that kind of pathos-laden satire, we’ll have to look to Birdman or Withnail and I. Opposite Irons is Jack Huston. Convincingly livid in some scenes, the Ben-Hur star doesn’t function well enough as a ‘straight-man’ when the ‘funny-man’s dialogue isn’t consistently up to scratch.
The only truly surprising thing about the film is how Atticus is concurrently Daniel Day-Lewis, a Will Arnett-alike in ‘Cops and Slobbers’ and apparently the star of the blaxploitation film ‘Jive Ass’. The relationship between absent, philandering father and resentful, feminist son forced to travel together follows the exact shape road trip movies tend to. There’s a deadline. Their mode of transport is compromised. There is bonding over illegal substances. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Due Date and even The Guilt Trip all spring to mind. The trick P, T and A pulled was the emotional sucker-punch that is dealt after eighty minutes of John Candy’s amusing antics. An Actor Prepares is neither funny enough nor heartfelt enough to care about when the heavily telegraphed emotional payoff comes. Will Atticus and Adam reconcile? Can Adam and his girlfriend overcome personal issues? It would be easier to forgive banal storytelling if the level of wit exceeded “I’m half-Irish” as a response to Atticus’ drinking. A visit to an old flame results in a good visual gag and there’s a wry observation about a jam jar, but aside from that, there’s little to chuckle at.
Co-writer and director Steve Clark keeps a consistent tone, dodging the jarring shift that plagues comedy-dramas. However, Clark’s script (written with frequent collaborator Thomas Moffat) is at the heart of the film’s issues. The introduction of Adam includes excruciating exposition, plonking twenty ‘students’ into a lecture so they can ask him revealing questions, to name a further weakness. It also feels like they missed a trick; Adam has concerns over having children himself, but it isn’t in conjunction with his own father issues.
The flaws would be less frustrating if Irons had more to work with than swearing in place of a well-written joke. Atticus ends up becoming a tad too abrasive – through no fault of Irons’ performance – and his inevitable arc consequently ends up, like the film, warranting no more than a muted response. It’s always nice to see Ben Schwartz though.