Some movies feature such powerful visuals that they’re enough communicate a lot of meaning despite a lacking of traditional narrative (see: Koyaanisqatsi), while other movies may have a great story behind some pretty vapid art design (see: Southland Tales). Then there’s movies that struggle to accomplish that perfect balance between style and substance and end up fizzling. The Time Being (2012) is one of the latter sort. A little art house flick from visual artist Ninad Cicin-Sain, The Time Being is successful in producing a powerful emotive atmosphere while lacking a strong script and featuring some one-note acting performances that prevent it from becoming a great film.
The Time Being follows the story of Daniel (Wes Bentley), an artist, father, and husband who is struggling to make ends meet between his part-time job at the art-supply store and his burgeoning yet fledgling career as a painter. At the start of the film Daniel is producing stark black and white images of rotting fruit, let’s call them still-deaths. When a millionaire and patron of the arts, Warner (Frank Langella), purchases one of these paintings from Daniel the sale comes with a job offer for the young artist and the potential to establish a good working relationship with an affluent benefactor.
When Daniel goes to deliver the painting to Warner he receives a simple offer, Warner asks the painter to simply film a sunrise over water for a generous wage of one thousand dollars. As Daniel continues his apprenticeship with Warner, the old man’s requests grow demanding and puzzlingly bizarre. As Warner progressively demands more of Daniel, the young artist becomes alienated from his job at the shop as well as from his wife, Olivia (Ahna O’Reilly), and son.
This is a point where I think the movie really lost a lot of steam, as Warner’s behavior becomes more alarming the movie catches on to a growing almost David Lynchian sort of tension. Picture it, the old benefactor asks the young artist to go to a park and film children playing, Daniel makes a lot of assumptions at this point of the plot, as does the audience, but then the script takes all that suspense and nosedives into a few scenes of ineffective melodrama.
The lack of effect is as much a result of sub-par acting on the part of the cast as it is due to the awkward dialogue. Frank Langella and Wes Bentley are both wasted here in one dimensional performances which have all the emotive range of the chairs they spend the movie sitting in. Contrast this with Langella’s performance in Frost/Nixon (2008) where he captures all of tricky Dick’s charismatic states from roaring anger to approachable good humor. Again, I’m not set to blame Langella for the weak performance here, as Ninin Cicin-Sain is a first time director and screenwriter who has a background in visual installation art which doesn’t necessarily require an artist to have any talent in directing actors. Take for instance the supporting cast, where Ahna O’Reilly (who will appear in James Franco’s directorial debut, As I Lay Dying) fails to make a splash with a robotic and bizarre performance.
I imagine that Cicin-Sain’s installation art is great. He’s got an incredible eye for color (hinted at by some back-patting close ups of Daniel’s eyes). This comes through in a set of montages where the director depicts the two leads composing massive paintings from conception to completion. You actually believe that the actors are conceiving the paintings in these scenes and their finished products are magnificent. Still, the artists who did the paintings for the movie Eric Zener and Stephen Wright deserve credit for their terrific works; as does Jan A.P. Kaczmarek for his dynamic score.
I’m not really sure who the intended audience for this movie is. I imagine that art fans would rather spend their time in a museum, and I know that film buffs will have seen this story told better in other movies (for the mounting tension see Lost Highway (1997), or for the artist’s descent to madness see The Shining (1980)). The Time Being just seems like a lot of wasted talent to me, it’s a beautiful strip of film which ultimately sinks by not being a terrific motion picture with the synthesis of disparate elements involved in that distinction.