Directed by: Andy Goddard
Starring: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Kelly Reilly, Steven Mackintosh, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon
In the years immediately following the end of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, it seemed Elijah Wood's career was over, as he struggled to shake off his hairy socks and found roles hard to come by. Over the past couple of years, Wood has reinvented himself by working primarily in Europe, using his name to help finance projects by continental filmmakers like Franck Khalfoun (Maniac), Eugenio Mira (Grand Piano) and Nacho Vigalondo (Open Windows). None of the aforementioned movies lived up to their intriguing pitches, but you have to admire Wood's involvement. Think Kristin Scott Thomas, if she couldn't speak French.
For his latest, Wood finds himself in Wales, lending his presence to the debut feature of director Andy Goddard, who has spent the past decade as a journeyman TV director. It's based on the true story of John M Brinnin (Wood), a college professor and poetry buff who arranged the first US tour of the infamous Welsh hell-raising poet Dylan Thomas (co-writer Jones). Once Thomas arrives in New York, Brinnin realises he may have bitten off more than he can chew, as the poet lives up to his reputation as a sociopath. Throughout the movie, Thomas causes all manner of trouble for Brinnin, who grows to despise Thomas as a man, while growing ever fonder of Thomas the poet. Think Planes, Trains & Automobiles, if John Candy's character had a beautiful command of the English language.
If you've seen My Favorite Year, in which Mark Linn-Baker is straddled with the task of keeping drunken thespian Peter O'Toole out of trouble in order to make a TV appearance, you'll have a good idea of how Set Fire to the Stars plays out. The straight man learns some life lessons from his hell-raising partner, and vice versa. Goddard's film just plays in a more sombre note, the monochrome cinematography and jazz score doing little to defend the movie against accusations of pomposity.
Wood is an actor who seems only capable of two emotions, distraught and confused, but this is a case of a stopped clock telling the right time twice a day, as that's enough to get him through his portrayal of the uptight Brinnin. He's playing Bud Abbott to Jones's Lou Costello, and the latter gives a breakout performance, portraying Thomas like the bastard son of John Belushi and Anthony Hopkins.
Structured like a road movie, Set Fire to the Stars' best moments feature the side characters that Brinnin and Thomas encounter on their travels, and the highlight is a drunken storytelling session attended by the horror novelist Shirley Jackson (Henderson), whose The Haunting of Hill House became the Robert Wise classic The Haunting. When your lead character is a figure as monumental as Thomas, that's damning with faint praise.
By Eric Hillis