Since the dawn of Hollywood, actors have always had special projects. They’ll stumble across an unused script, or they’ll come up with an idea all of their own that they believe in. With a little work and some elbow grease, they’ll take to the circuit in order to secure whatever finances they can with hopes of bringing it all to fruition. Perhaps if they’d open up a bit more to the idea of truly ‘collaborating’ with others, then maybe more of these ‘visions’ could have greater meaning instead of just becoming vehicles bloated with whatever ideology or cause is popular for that day. Instead, what we get (as an audience) is a lot of cinematic fluff and flourish but very little worthy of being committed to a list of classics for the ages.
In other words, not every Orson Welles can make his CITIZEN KANE, but, boy, will they all try!
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Robert Longfellow (played by Martin Donovan) has reached a crossroad in his life. Professionally, he’s a playwright on the way down as his latest works appear to lack the critical panache of his early career. Personally, he’s trapped in a loveless marriage, staying in the relationship more out of convenience for the children than he is love. Seeking a break from the routine, he returns home to check in on his ailing mother. One evening, he agrees to share a drink with his former neighbor, Gus (the reliable David Morse). However, the drunken Gus inevitably pulls out a weapon and holds Robert hostage, plunging the two men into a curious confrontation with themselves and the surrounding police.
On the surface, it would seem that Mr. Donovan immersed himself inside the ultimate vanity project: he wrote, directed, and headlined COLLABORATOR, a curious title for a film essentially weighting down one man’s shoulders. While one could certainly applaud the attainment of a vision, I thought much of the picture was curiously bereft of one central tenet of good drama: conflict. Unfortunately, the script – like Longfellow’s life – vacillates between moments that never quite add up to any real substance.
Like a good play, the script is divided into thirds: the first third establishes the world and these characters, the second third builds the conflict (of which there really is none), and the final third delivers the climax, which is heavily predicated (as well) on the conflict. Because so much of their time together is spent as two old chums jawing about life, Robert and Gus learn they have more in common that they do apart. Granted, their lifestyles are different. They stand on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum as one relates to country and honor (I won’t spoil the plot by delving into the specifics). But, otherwise, the exchanges don’t have any appreciable friction until the climax, at which point it kinda/sorta becomes clear how this is all gonna end up.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some respectable performances here. Certainly, Morse has built a career on his almost workmanlike commitment to fleshing out character, and Donovan – most recently seen in Starz’s exceptional but underrated BOSS program – has done the same throughout his time inside and outside Hollywood. The comely Olivia Williams even pops in as an extramarital love interest – the only time we’re treated to what we presume are Longfellow’s closeted desires – and, while she strolls almost obligatorily through her paces, there just wasn’t enough meat on the bones of her character to make it all that memorable.
Had Donovan – as the screenwriter – amped up the thematic differences between Gus and Robert with more substantive dialogue, COLLABORATOR could’ve been a winner. There are moments – albeit brief ones – when the dialogue crackles with a solid undercurrent. Sadly, this’ll probably end up as clutter on most video stores shelves when more attention to detail could’ve elevated it for repeat viewings. As it stands, once was enough for me.
COLLABORATOR is produced by DViant Films, This Is That Productions, and Optix Digital Pictures. DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (E One). As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds about as well as any small or independent production. Sadly, Donovan didn’t have enough time for this project to commit to more special features; there are only a few brief interview segments with himself and Ms. Williams available, and, at less than five minutes each, they really don’t amount to much.
MILDLY RECOMMENDED, mostly for fans of independent cinema. Honestly, COLLABORATOR is the kind of film I wanted to like more than I did, and I chalk that up to being fans of both Donovan and Morse’s work in other projects. Both men have long imbued the characters they play with a likeability – even when they play some blowhards with nefarious intent – and there’s something to be said for rewarding any artisan producing reliable ‘crafts.’ Sadly, the film is lacking any central conflict – until the end, that is, and then it’s far too late for it to be given the measure of seriousness it deserves. As a one-time viewing, it works just fine, and that’s that.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (E One) provided me with a DVD copy of COLLABORATOR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Star Rating: There are two problems that prevented Collaborator from being the thought-provoking character study it so clearly wanted to be. Firstly, writer/director/star Martin Donovan could not come to a decision as to what he wanted it to be about; it plays like a shopping list of concepts that he picked at random and only examined at arm’s length, never once allowing them to develop into anything or even to let them be resolved. Secondly, the concepts … more