The eponymous Len, of LEN AND COMPANY is Len Black (Rhys Ifans), a successful record producer and towering failure of a human being, who has absented himself from the world in order the ponder the detritus of his life. He longs for silence, or at least no music of any kind in his rustic upstate New York retreat as he spends his days floating in a ritzy swimming pool full of algae, and watching old British television shows on DVD. He has walked away from it all, very publically, in order to sort it all out. Or at least not to be further bothered by family and colleagues.
It’s not to be.
His semi-estranged son, Max (Jack Kilmer) drops in unannounced after dropping out of college, wanting neither money nor a helpful phone call to a record company on behalf of his band, but something much more problematical: his father’s time. The pink-wigged pop-princess (Juno Temple in another superbly nuanced performance) that Len created shows up wanting to know why Len has abandoned her. Even Max’s mother (Kathryn Hahn), the ex with whom Len in still in love after all these years, shows up when Len leaves her a troubling voice mail.
This intriguing comedy-drama works for two reasons. The first is Ifans. He is ridiculous, vicious, and sympathetic all at once. He can deliver a line that cuts like a knife, break your heart, or make you burst out laughing. He plays Len without a trace of ego, which makes the vitriolic personality not about arrogance, but rather about something much more interesting, even poignant. Not that Ifans pulls any punches. When he lays into his son for not being edgy enough to be a real musician, it’s painful to watch the hurt and anger on Max’s face. But then, when Len explains what rock-and-roll means as an artistic expression, the genuine passion for music is transcendent. Ifans makes Len complicated in ways that make us want to know what makes this guy tick. Why he sees those around him, even the ones he loves in his own idiosyncratic way, as predators waiting to devour him. And why he has limited his social contacts to the neighbor kid (Keir Gilchrist) who provides tech support and does odd jobs around the house, including planting milkweed for butterflies.
The second reason is the writing. Based Carly Mensche’s play, “Len, Asleep in Vinyl”, this is a literate character study opened up just enough to make it cinematic, such as seeing, rather than hearing a description of Ifans’ gangly corpus floating in that fetid swimming pool while denying to Max that there’s anything wrong with it. The balance of comedy and drama doesn’t alternate from moment to moment or scene to scene, the seeds of both are always present, playing off one another, heightening both, and keeping us guessing about what will happen next. The thing about Len is that in a music world full of sycophants and users, he is brutally honest, most of all with himself, and without being judgmental. It’s that bold unconventionality makes him a completely fascinating character. It also explains why the other characters don’t give up one him, at least not completely, even when he is brusque, which is his lowest setting.
Deeply affecting and wonderfully odd, LEN AND COMPANY is a film as brutally honest, but much more compassionate than Len himself.