I get the hate. Really, I do. Screenwriter Max Landis is on a hot streak in Hollywood, having sold numerous high concept pitches and scripts all over town. His four films so far include "Chronicle," "American Ultra," "Victor Frankenstein," and his just-released directorial debut "Me Him Her." He raised eyebrows last summer when "American Ultra" bombed, taking to Twitter to complain that audiences weren't interested in original stories. He's been called an arrogant whiner and an entitled brat, often not in such polite terms. And then he had the gall not to like "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and not keep his mouth shut about it. And "The Revenant." He has his defenders, but there's a considerable contingent in the film community that openly loathes him - for this work, for this personality, and mostly some combination of the two.
Max Landis is not going away soon, though. He's got another feature, hitman rom-com "Mr. Right," opening this month, the "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" miniseries at the BBC, writing credits on next year's "Power Rangers" reboot, and Netflix just announced that it's going ahead with the Will Smith fantasy thriller "Bright." There are at least five other projects in various stages of development at other studios. It's no secret why. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Landis is a spectacular pitch man. I've heard several of the interviews on the Nerdist podcast and other outlets where he's demonstrated this. He has the ability to make terrible ideas, like a "Peter Pan" prequel trilogy aimed at grown-ups, sound exciting. He's very intense, very passionate, very grandiose, and it's easy to get caught up in whatever big idea he has at the moment. He's also very prolific, having posted this lengthy list of every script he's written to his website last year. It also helps that his favorite kind of material - action-heavy genre films for young adults - is exactly what Hollywood wants to spend money on these days. And it's harder to come up with that kind of material than it looks.
The trouble is that most of his films just haven't been very good. "Chronicle," which made the 2010 Black List, is still the best thing he's ever been involved with. It's a found footage take on the superhero/supervillain origin story that's fast and dirty and stops exactly where it should. The production was small enough to take risks and be innovative, with the technical skills of director Josh Trank and his crew making up for any shortfalls in the narrative. Sadly, the planned sequel was saddled with much bigger expectations, and ultimately fell apart over creative differences. In the more expensive Landis-scripted films that followed, "American Ultra" and "Victor Frankenstein," it's much easier to see the formulas and the flaws. Both movies have grand ideas, but play it very safe, and there are big problems in the execution. They both seem to to have come from the same template too: idealistic, romantic young male lead gets caught up in a familiar genre narrative, his enemies are dispatched by their own hubris, and the hero escapes the fallout and gets the girl in the end. The familiarity of the formula wouldn't be such a problem if the specifics weren't so bland and half-hearted.
For instance, I enjoyed "American Ultra," but there's no denying how tame and toothless it is for a movie about an affable stoner who finds out that he's actually a secret government killing machine. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart are terribly likable as the leads, but the characters they play are short on depth, and quickly become lost in a comic-book premise that seems torn between its requisite action violence and fluffier, sillier romantic aims. What's worse, it's not nearly as funny as it should be for a having a premise with so much comedic potential. The performances were strong enough that I came away from the movie more or less entertained, but you can't get away from the sense of wasted potential. I might be tempted to put the bulk of the blame on director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only prior credit was 2012's party film "Project X," but then Max Landis went on a social media campaign defending "American Ultra" against all critics, making him a lightning rod for all the negative attention.
Then came "Victor Frankenstein," which Landis has described as "very flawed," and insists was mangled in the journey from script to screen. Sure, I can see where the alterations happened, but that doesn't change the fact that the movie's central conceit was to reinvent "Frankenstein" by shifting focus away from the most important, fascinating relationship in the story - Victor Frankenstein's relationship with his creation - to Frankenstein's relationship with lab assistant Igor. Watching the pair of them partner up and dive headlong into gruesome scientific experiments, driven by Victor's massive ego and ambition, is occasionally fun. However, it completely loses all the larger themes and moral questions of Mary Shelley's original, in favor of very shallow, action-adventure movie plotting. It's way too quick to make room for chase sequences and fights, while things like motivation and stakes feel weirdly tacked on in odd places. The story is also too lopsided in favor of Igor - now a pensive romantic figure - and doesn't give the title character his due. "Victor Frankenstein" reminded me of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies more than anything, except not nearly as well realized.
Still, I can't find it in me to dismiss Max Landis as the latest Joe Eszterhas. I quite enjoy his public persona, who has made Youtube videos explaining his love of wrestling, and will talk to anybody online about anything without fear. I understand him being so unapologetically geeky about geeky things can be trying, and it's exhausting to listen to him talk at length, but his articulateness and his passion constantly impress me. I really do think that his writing can improve over time and that this recent string of failures will be good for him. Landis's biggest flaw seems to be simply that he's young and inexperienced and has gotten way too much attention too fast. He hasn't been walloped over the head enough times with the ugly realities of commercial filmmaking. And he still seems to think that he can win internet arguments.
I wish the man luck, and sincerely hope that we see him do better work in the future. Whatever you want to say about his scripts, they're not nearly as bad as some of the stinkers we've seen in recent years, and there's never been a moment that's felt cynical or phony. And Landis definitely cares about what he's doing. I have to respect him for that.