Shallow “Val”

I’m fairly certain that I have never enjoyed a movie LESS than Val (2021) the new vanity doc about movie star Val Kilmer (b. 1959). My wife suggested it, so I figured we’d hate-watch it, then I quickly learned about his throat cancer and his present handicap (he can only speak with great difficulty now) so then I figured we’d sympathy-watch it….but very rapidly went back to hate-watching it again.

Trigger warning: I’m going to be shockingly mean in this review. But let me clarify something right off the bat. If I saw any of God’s creatures, say, a dog at the vet, suffering as Kilmer is at the moment, I would feel sympathy toward it. And that is roughly the level of sympathy I have for the biological entity called Val Kilmer…the base level, the minimum amount I would afford to any man or beast in his condition. If he fell on the floor, I would pick him up. If he had a boo-boo, I might even put a band-aid on it. But humans aren’t just “creatures”. They are theoretically imbued with more. They have things like personality and character and, presumably, souls. Yet after watching this film, perhaps especially after watching this film, I’m not quite certain that KIlmer does. In fact, I’ve walked away quite certain that he doesn’t.

That poor sick man? Sure, but let me tweak that for clarity: that poor sick, self-involved, supercilious, vain, manipulative, possibly psychopathic man. Those additional parts, well known for nigh on 40 years, have not changed just because he got ill. I have followed his career since the beginning, starting with the ZAZ comedy Top Secret (1984) and have seen nearly all of his films through The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996). Of the films he’s made since then, I’ve probably seen half a dozen. And the absence of interior life he exhibits in screen performances turns out to be a reflection of his overall condition. A sort of posing mannequin, made all the more infuriating by his constant mouthing of cliches and platitudes lifted from the Beginning Actor’s Handbook about “truth” and “presence” and so forth, concepts he harps on constantly, and has never exhibited on screen.

One symptom of Kilmer’s boundless narcissism is partly responsible for the fact that this movie exists at all. He has been videotaping his own life since childhood. So he has hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of backstage, offscreen footage of himself, from which he has drawn copiously for this film. The most winning sections were shot by his brother, an aspiring film-maker, who sadly died at age 15. And even better, the kids grew up on a ranch that was formerly owned by Roy Rogers! How could Kilmer not become a movie star? On the face of it, the tragedy involving his brother ought to be as heart-rending as his cancer struggle ought. But unfortunately, Kilmer reveals himself to be empty and awful over and over and over again, with no apparent heart that can experience genuine emotions. One sympathizes or empathizes with a person who feels things. Kilmer is a person who wants attention: that’s the extent of what he has to offer.

So much so that he has made this movie, which is like nothing so much as a guy walking around in circles looking at himself in mirrors. It’s like watching a doting parent’s slide show of every single picture they ever took of their baby — only in this case, the parent is also the baby, and the pictures often depict him being odious and loathesome. Kilmer produced the film himself, with the aid of his two dutiful adult children, and some people he paid to direct it. There are no interviews with admiring friends or sympathetic relatives let alone detractors, facts that damn the validity of the man and the film simultaneously. There is some archival footage of co-stars. There is some (non-speaking) footage of the two or three people who are in his life at present, usually captured in the act of waving the camera away. There is footage of Kilmer with fans at Comic Con (he played Batman, after all) and at a personal appearance at a screening of Tombstone in Texas. Only a cursory internet seach will tell you why he has no one in his life. He has alienated every single person in his private and personal lives. All he has is an audience.

And in this film, he milks his possibly final appearance before cameras for all it is worth, by cheaply flaunting his wretched condition. If he were a humble, generous and self-effacing person I would call his appearance in this film “brave” (as I have seen rather clueless people do on social media). But instead Kilmer is demonstrably a monster of exhibitionism — it is baldly obvious that he is only trotting out his malady to feed his infinite thirst for making a spectacle of himself. At one point, he includes a scene of himself vomiting into a garbage can, before being wheeled out of the convention center with a table cloth over his head like The Elephant Man. A thoughtful person might say, “Don’t look at this, I don’t want you to have to see this.” Who says, “I gotta throw up. Listen, keep the camera rolling, we’ll use it as B roll”? A MANIPULATOR, that’s who. This movie is a FREAK SHOW in which Kilmer is BOTH Barnum AND The Dog Faced Boy. How do we know that’s what it is? Witness the “prank” he pulls on his son (and the audience) when he suddently collapses and falls on the floor. We assume he has fainted or passed out, but he’s just joking. Very funny. This whole movie is that one moment writ large.

The manipulation extends itself to all sorts of misrepresentations and outright lies, about movies “he chose not to do” (as opposed to not being asked to do them), to “artistic differences” he had with directors and other actors because of his supposed integrity (as opposed to being a self-indulgent pain in the ass wasting everyone’s time), and to his “decision to sell the family land” when it’s pretty obvious that his debts offered him no alternative. If this were a real documentary, there would be counterweights to his pronouncements. But it is not, so there are not.

And then — the icing on the cake, the piece de resistance, like some character out of SCTV or a Christopher Guest movie, he goes on a national tour doing a one man show about Mark Twain. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Val. Once you’ve rinsed the bile out of your mouth. The irony is that if someone else, someone objective had made the film, it would likely be more sympathetic, because the takeaway would be “Isn’t it sad that at the end of his life he has no friends?” But since he made the film himself, the principal takeaway is “Here is a guy who deserves no friends!”

Instead of Val, I recommend that instead you watch Hal (2018) a pretty excellent documentary about another difficult (but much better) Hollywood artist Hal Ashby, whose birthday it is today. I’m totally planning a post on him. I grew up on his films of the ’70s, but I want to hold off until I’ve had a chance to look at the ones from his period of decline. Hopefully by next year. Anyway, until then, let your watchword be “Hal — Not Val“.