At first, Max seems like the ugliest joke ever told. These two depressed World War I veterans walk into an art gallery. One, Rothman, owns the place and revels in creative expression despite having lost an arm and -- to the chagrin of his doting wife (Molly Parker) -- gained a mistress (Leelee Sobieski). The other, pitiful Hitler, has squat in the way of friends and resources but wishes to be taken seriously as an artist. The punchline -- occurring after this movie closes -- is that millions of people are tortured and killed.
Tragedy tends to return as farce, but since Mel Brooks already dropped his brilliance on us several years ago, Meyjes takes an exciting, progressive path, that of the speculator. What if, he asks us, Hitler was once a human being, one who hated modern art ("The next time I have diarrhea, I'll shit on a canvas and bring it 'round") but desperately craved acceptance and attention? What if he developed a tentative friendship with someone like Rothman, despite loathing the art dealer's dubious business practices and apparently decadent lifestyle? And the clincher: What if Rothman gave Hitler the time of day?
Meyjes laces his inherently grim movie with soothing amusements (Rothman and his mom joke that the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler is that "the Rottweiler eventually lets go"), but he handles his volatile subjects with grace and intelligence. Going in, we know who the monster is, so there's no point in merely martyring Max. Instead, Meyjes makes Max a pushy snob, a hard drinker and chain smoker, an adulterer -- an easy target. Then he gradually unleashes Hitler, letting Max build his confidence even as the young nobody hones his burgeoning propaganda skills and anti-Semitism. The result is as chilling and fascinating as Philippe Mora's modern Hitler study, Snide and Prejudice; the two films would make a strong double feature, if perhaps not the coziest date.
The leads couldn't be better cast. As Max, Cusack continues to stretch. His dedication to Max's compassionate and wounded soul propels one of the year's finest performances, paralleled with great vigor by Taylor's frenzies and fits. It is indeed ironic that the remarkable Aussie actor -- who made his name with gentle comedies like The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting -- may find his biggest success to date playing a fiend in the making. Together, the two are dynamite.
Explosions also abound in the movie's themes, which center on the nature and power of art. Rothman exhorts Hitler to put his overwhelming passion on the canvas, which is darn-tootin' great advice in this case, but of course, art is no more neutral than the public address Hitler soon enough favors. Lest we forget, the movie screen -- a form of canvas for potential propaganda -- has been known to cajole people into doing stupid and dangerous things, from Triumph of the Will (the death of a nation) to The Program (Long Island high school kids lie down on the road at night to prove machismo and are promptly squashed). A point Meyjes' movie could have made a little more strongly is that with all art comes responsibility.
In general, though, the director's work is moving -- even revolutionary -- and it was silly of Spielberg to chicken out on the subject matter (he passed on directing) when he could have brought Meyjes' script the wide recognition it deserves. Not that Meyjes needs a handout: His eye for the potential of between-the-wars Europe is all over his canvas, and it is in fact a hopeful sight. Even as the ugliness looms and grows heavier, he romances what might have been had everyone been a little smarter, a little more sophisticated, a little less grotesque. Unfortunately, the beauty was a missed opportunity then, but it's coming around again, and in the midst of his cautionary tale, Meyjes is happy to remind us of its presence.