I have been a fan of J.K. Simmons for years. Our family Christmas movie is The Ref where he plays a blackmailed Army officer in charge of a student academy teaching yuppie kids who are too smart for their own good. Since then, he has popped up in various films from Spiderman to Juno, but Whiplash is where he gets his Oscar nomination for the perfection-obsessed jazz teacher. I guess he hasn’t gotten as far away from the teaching kids role than I thought. His character has just become more defined.
Whiplash is the quintessential David and Goliath story with Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as our David versus the great and legendary Terence Fletcher (Simmons) with a bark that will make you want to bite his head off. Andrew is a student at the Shaffer Conservatory (a fictional school in New York), and one evening as he practices, he catches the attention of Fletcher. He instantly takes the role of overbearing and condescending father-figure leaving Andrew in his dust seeking approval like a kicked dog.
After Fletcher invades a school band practice by kicking in the door not asking for permission or forgiveness, he sweeps Andrew away with sweet words and smiles to join his “studio band”–the most coveted of bands in the institution. Andrew now is full of pride being the youngest member of the studio band and is quickly knocked down more pegs than he even had to begin with. A chair is flung at his head and he is degraded to the point of tears in front of his new bandmates in a sort of sadistic hazing.
Andrew then performs a painful montage of practicing with bleeding callouses and muscles so wound tight, I would have sworn he was seizing. I couldn’t understand why he felt this need to continue pushing beyond his breaking point as it’s not entirely clear what his drive is. The only real family history we get is his father is a high school teacher and his mother ran out on him as a child. So why this drive for perfection with drums? And not just drums, but jazz drums? It’s never fully explained why he must get Fletcher’s approval and win this sort of competition with himself leaving the story hollow.
One of the big plot devices in this piece is Andrew’s relationship with Nicole. This is a girl he has lusted after for a while and finally gets the courage to ask her out on the same day he is asked to join Fletcher’s band. As his ego grows, his relationship hits different milestones. He would never have asked her out if it wasn’t for Fletcher’s acceptance, and the same goes for when he dumps her mirroring the path he blindly follows to jazz stardom. He tells her, in advance, that he will not have time for her and due to his eventual stardom, she will not be able to keep up with him. Sounds like a real gem, huh? Fletcher not only has created a better drummer out of Andrew, but also a ego-maniacal, self-deserving jerk, who Miles Teller plays well.
I must talk about J.K. Simmons some more though, especially since he has been nominated for this role. He was exquisite as the sadistic tutor. One line he says punctuates his character so clearly. “Save your travel receipts. Or don’t. I don’t give a shit.” The delivery of this line was so casual and so off-the-cuff that it painted the picture of a teacher that really could care less about his students–all he wants is the performance. But Simmons, on the flip side, plays the seductive snake in the Garden of Eden flawlessly. On more than one occasion, he milks information from Andrew only to use it against him later as put downs and insults to his character. It takes a certain charm to slap you in the face and then ask you to coffee a minute later knowing you’ll get a “yes.”
It does make you wonder more about Fletcher’s past. Why is he a teacher? Why does he have this need to have 110% perfection 110% of the time? Is this the adage of “those who can’t do, teach,” therefore must inflict pain on anyone who can do better? Or is it the drive to find the next Blue Note client and fine fame in that alone? It’s never clear his drive or his “want.”
When the final climax of the film comes, I found myself clenching every muscle I had in tune with Andrew as he played. From one second to the next you don’t know if he will break or succeed. That’s the magic with movies these days. Audiences have gotten so sick of the stereotypical happy ending that Hollywood, or in this case, Independent Hollywood, finds ways to keep you guessing yet satisfied to which this ending not only surprised but had me circling a whole range of emotions from rage to adoration.
Now nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor (Simmons), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing and also Best Picture, this film has proven to be a tour de force in the film line up. But after watching it myself, I personally don’t think it is Best Picture quality. Ever since they opened the Best Picture nominees to be more than the classic five, I feel like they have to keep that number up as to not admit to their mistake to opening the gates and they must fill it with whatever film that fits within the certain tick boxes like achievements in acting, editing, and sound design, but that doesn’t make it Best Picture quality.
The acting was definitely there. I would recommend this film to others for the character development, but as an overall movie, I think it falls short. If this film walks away with the Best Picure Oscar, I would feel cheated. At its core, this film was a character piece about a kid persevering through trials and tribulations of near-impossible heights. What film cannot say that about itself? I find that premise in Boyhood, Intersteller, Selma, and even The Grand Budapest Hotel. What makes Whiplash that much better to qualify for Best Picture? This film is about the characters and the acting. Beyond that, the film almost feels empty.
3.5 out of 5 stars