Based on the Tolstoy story THE DEATH OF IVAN ILLYICH, IVANSXTC takes the Russian bureaucrat from the 19th century and transmutes him into a high-powered talent agent in contemporary Hollywood. Not an intuitive leap, but filmmaker Bernard Rose has taken the essence of the original story, and made it work in the most unlikely of settings.
The film opens on the last day of Ivans life, actually, the last few moments. In voice over narration, he talks about the pain he has been in and how not even taking every drug, legal and otherwise, in his luxurious but soulless home has helped. In the course of the flashback that constitutes the rest of the film, it becomes obvious that its not just the terminal lung cancer that is causing the pain, its the life lived for everyone but himself. It was a life given over to prostitution of the spirit, where the slightest whim of the most disoriented, to be charitable, superstar (Peter Weller at his peculiar best) is satisfied without qualm or question. If he wants to snort cocaine an inch from the most intimate area of Ivans girlfriend, no problem and well all have a good laugh about it while its going on. Relationships of the most tender nature hinge on closing the next deal more than even the most rudimentary form of affection, a state of affairs that leaves Ivan disconnected from what could have been the saving warmth of his family.
Nothing is prettied up here. News of Ivans death is greeted with an obligatory moment of silence followed by rumor-mongering about him of the basest nature. The orgies dont have glamour lighting and the good guy does very, very bad things. Its not something that we havent seen before about the film business, but there is a raw immediacy to this piece that transcends the otherwise by-the-book wallow in decadence central. Perhaps its the true-life experiences of Rose, whose run-in with the studios over his version of another Tolstoy classic, ANNA KARENINA, is what brings it on. To complete the verisimilitude of life in La La Land, Rose has cast agents as agents, doctors and doctors, the films producer, Lisa Enos as Ivans writer and cokehead girlfriend, and in a delicious Hollywood insider reference, artist Robert Graham, Danny Hustons brother-in-law, is cast as his father. Plus theres Huston as Ivan. Son of film legend John Huston, there is an ineffable boyishness to him that makes him immensely likable even while whoring around, literally and figuratively, to please his psycho superstar client. His capacity for pure joy and his quiet sadness over absolute aloneness in a tinsel town that doesnt allow for an inner life makes for a magnetic performance capable of carrying the dark subject matter into a more ethereal realm.
IVANSXTC is a tour de force for Huston. For Rose, it must be the sweetest kind of payback, a feeling that is palpable and while it doesnt pander to our better nature, it is as seductive as Tinseltown itself.