There is no more artificial, only-in-the-movies conceit than when a character seeking redemption or closure bares his or her soul in front of a gravestone. That's not to say that no one has ever prostrated himself on a patch of mud and confessed his sins to a stone marker in "real life," only that most people have enough imagination to confront difficult feelings without resorting to heavy-handed symbolism. If only the same could be said of most filmmakers.
Written and directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador), Dom Hemingway not only features an overwrought graveside confessional, but also indulges star Jude Law in about five minutes of writhing, awards-groveling bathos. Even worse, the graveside sequence is the culmination of a third-act spiral that undermines an otherwise enjoyably coarse black comedy.
When you see where the film starts, it seems unlikely that drippy softheartedness will be its ultimate undoing. In a bracing, hilarious, straight-to-camera monologue destined to never become a staple of youth drama classes, Dom offers an epic poem to the holy magnificence of his own member, whose "splendid contours" he insists constitute a flawless work of art destined to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It's a brilliant scene, at once lyrical and offensive, and establishes Dom as a deluded egotist, a point underlined when he prematurely ejaculates and one of his fellow prisoners rises into the frame.
Jude Law grew mutton-chop sideburns and added about 30 pounds of English-ale belly to play the title character of Dom Hemingway, and that slight de-glamorization seems to have recharged his batteries. Although under-appreciated for his work in Side Effects, Law gives easily his best performance in a decade, and it is especially nice to see him re-sharpen the comic timing that had been blunted by hacks like Guy Ritchie and Nancy Meyers.
While he is a fictional creation, Dom Hemingway is cut from the mold of "hard man" criminal biopics like Chopper and Bronson, with a heavy dollop of Ben Kingsley's character from Sexy Beast. Director Shepard's wrinkle on the genre is to strain it through a filter of distinctly British gallows humor, with Withnail & I getting referenced especially hard, particularly during a lengthy interlude in the south of France that is the film's unquestionable highlight. The presence of nattily dressed Withnail star Richard E. Grant in the role of Dom's left-handless right-hand man Dicky only adds to the authenticity.
For a while, this stylish hybrid works quite well, thanks in large part to Law's excellent lead performance, as well as oddball supporting work by Grant, Demián Bichir and Jumayn Hunter. Dom's sun-blotting egotism and thoughtless descent back into his pre-prison lifestyle make him distinctly unlikeable, but he is also "a good soldier" who wants to do right by those who do right by him. He is a criminal who "plays by the rules," an enormous mistake in a world where all of the rules are unwritten and rarely followed.
Unfortunately, Shepard doesn't have the fortitude to carry the film to its logical conclusion, instead settling for ridiculous deus ex machinas and over-indulging a subplot involving Dom's daughter (Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones) that never comes together. For a film that begins by soliloquizing over its protagonist's penis, Dom Hemingway is surprisingly short of balls.