Stanley Tucci’s a wonderful actor, and every now and again he tries his hand at directing. On that front, his most notable effort is the 1996 indie classic “Big Night” (co-directed with Campbell Scott), one of the all-time great food movies.
Except “Big Night” isn’t really about making food. It’s about making art, with Tony Shaloub’s Italian chef channeling every tortured artist who ever tried to get something exactly, painstakingly right.
Tucci returns to the subject in “Final Portait,” a modest sliver of a movie. The subject is still a fine one. But the new film doesn’t have enough food.
No, really: Food preparation is simply more fun to watch than a painter sitting at an easel. The artist is Alberto Giacometti, glimpsed in his waning days in 1964 Paris.
We meet the famous artist (played by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) through the eyes of James Lord (Armie Hammer), a young American. Tucci’s screenplay is based on Lord’s memoir of the time.
Giacometti asks Lord to sit for a portrait. It’ll only take a couple of days.
Three weeks drag by, as Giacometti paints and re-paints, breaks up the sessions for wine-fueled lunches, and dallies with his mistress (Clemence Poesy). His long-serving brother (Tony Shaloub) and wife (Sylvie Testud) putter in his orbit, cleaning up his messes.
In Rush’s fine performance, Giacometti is every inch the difficult, truculent artist, stomping around his messy studio and declaring the impossibility of ever finishing the portrait.
Tucci doesn’t avoid all the cliches of the artist-movie. And for a story obsessed with getting the image right, the film’s flat evocation of Paris practically begs you to overlook the cheapness of the costumes and storefronts.
Also flat is the film’s central character. This isn’t helped by Armie Hammer’s vague presence, or his inflection-free line readings. He’s got the same problem here he had in “Call Me by Your Name”: Though a likable and handsome actor, it’s difficult to know why so many other characters are creating a fuss about him.
Tucci does some admirable things, despite the film’s slimness. I liked the many silences, especially the moment the distracted artist pauses by one of his sculpted heads, stares at it, and finally runs his fingers across the clay, as though trying to understand his own intention in making it.
When Lord asks Giacometti how he achieved a magical touch with the painting, the artist says, “I have no idea”— something Laurence Olivier famously uttered after giving a commanding stage performance. Clearly, Tucci appreciates that mystery. It’s a shame this movie isn’t quite strong enough to sustain it.
‘Final Portrait’ (2½ stars)
An American (Armie Hammer) sits for a portrait by the famed artist Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) in 1964 Paris, but the unsatisfied painter lets the process drag on. Stanley Tucci’s film is so slim it doesn’t truly sustain itself, although Rush is splendid and there are thoughtful observations about the creation of art.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Opening: Pacific Place