06 September 2013

"Happiness Is the Enemy: It Weakens You"

I don't care much for motor racing — I've never seen more than a couple of minutes of a Grand Prix and I probably couldn't name more than one or two current racing drivers (Nigel Mansell?) — but I really enjoyed the 2011 documentary Senna, and so when I saw the trailer for Ron Howard's new film Rush, I was interested. In fact, after watching the teaser trailer, I thought Rush *was* about Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Needless to say, I know even less about motor racing in the 1970s than I do about motor racing in the 1990s, and I hadn't heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, the two drivers at the centre of Rush.

In many ways there are similarities between the two pairs of rival drivers, both alike in dignity, but unalike in every other way, but although I was in tears at the end of Senna, the ending of Rush just left me confused as to whether there was a happy ending and if so, for whom. And who was the hero, anyway? Of the ending of Senna, I wrote, "It's a tragic story with a talented, likeable hero," but although there was certainly talent, bravery and, er, drive in Rush, Howard's film is absent of heroes and likeable characters. This isn't necessarily a problem, but was a little confusing narratively at times.

Rush opens in the early 1970s, when we are supposed to see how Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) are so similar: they are both the disappointing sons of families of barristers, bankers and accountants, for whom racing driver is not a suitable profession. They meet at a Formula 3 race, where, showing off to impress his new nurse/lady-friend (Natalie Dormer), Hunt cuts in on Lauda's line, overtaking him on a treacherous corner and winning the race. It's hate almost at first sight. We then follow them as they rise up the ranks over the next few years. Lauda works like crazy and strategises how to shave those extra few seconds off his time; Hunt drinks a lot and sleeps around, but still manages to charm everyone. They even handle adversity differently: when Lauda is unhappy about losing, he plots to re-engineer his car; Hunt sits forlornly in his flat, hungover and playing Scalextric. I guess you would if you had those lank locks.

I read on Wikipedia, although I have no idea if this is true, that the two drivers were actually flatmates and friends, but that part wasn't convenient for the plot arcs Peter Morgan had plotted out in his screenplay, so for the purposes of the movie, they are bitter rivals. The rivalry portrayed here feels more personal than in Senna — each protests against the diametrically opposed personality of the other. And the audience is unsure for whom they should root. Hemsworth's Hunt is charming, charismatic and fun, but he's also a bit of a douche and you can see that he's in it for the glory and the admiration, rather than because he genuinely wants to be the best racing driver of all time. Lauda, on the other hand, is dedicated, hard-working and driven. "Happiness is the enemy," he says, "it weakens you." He's also a know-it-all and pretty difficult to be around. He's an asshole too.

Some spoilers follow in the rest of this review, although I always feel silly giving spoiler alerts for movies based on historical events.

The bulk of the film is taken up with the infamous 1976 racing season. Lauda won the 1975 championship and was hoping to retain his title; Hunt felt it was finally his time to win. In the trailer, there are some crash scenes so I knew there was going to be at least one crash, which made me nervous every time there was a Grand Prix (i.e. all the time). This also gave the film an odd pacing: there was a long stretch in the final act where I thought every race we saw was going to be the crucial one, the climax. It turned out that different races were important for different reasons. And as the film culminates at the end of 1976, everyone seems to have gotten what they want. With hindsight, though, it's not what you would call a happy ending.

I enjoyed Rush, although I was surprised to find myself feeling more gripped during the racing scenes in the second half than the personal-life scenes. Probably because of the likeability issues discussed above. Hemsworth is certainly handsome, charming and very watchable, although Brühl's performance is more interesting. I haven't even touched on the womenfolk yet, but that's probably because neither Hunt's (first) wife Suzy (Olivia Wilde) nor Lauda's (first) wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) gets much to do beyond looking sad, hurt or worried. Overall, the film ticked along nicely, but could have done with a more ruthless edit. As I was leaving the preview screening on Tuesday evening, I heard another cinema-goer saying, "So what did you think of it — apart from the racing bits?" Ironic given that Morgan wrote the screenplay the way he did because he was worried it wouldn't get picked up and that there might not be a budget for any racing scenes. My main problem was the lack of emotional centre, and if that's what you want from a movie, I'd get the DVD of Senna instead.

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