J.K. Simmons has been working regularly in film and in television since the early 1990s. No doubt you've seen him in one movie or guest appearance after another and maybe didn't know his name. More recently, you probably see him most in TV commercials for Farmers Insurance. Simmons is one of a dying breed though, the character actor. He's getting all sorts of publicity lately and for all the right reasons. Best Supporting Actor wins at the Oscars tend to do that I suppose. Here's 2014's Whiplash.
A freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, one of the most respected music schools in the country, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a drummer with a goal, a passion. He doesn't want to be great at what he does. He wants to be one of the all-time GREATS, and he's willing to do whatever it takes. This isn't just a pipe dream. But as a first-year student, Andrew has his work cut out for him. Practicing one night, he catches the attention of conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who leads a highly-respected and oft-awarded studio band at Shaffer. Fletcher offers Andrew a chance to earn the front spot on the drums and seems like an ideal teacher who will push his students/musicians to their limits. He does and is, but Andrew has no idea just how far this new instructor is willing to go.
It's a funny thing about movies. You can hear all the glowing reviews, see the awards pile up, but sometimes...that movie just doesn't connect. It just isn't as good as it should be. Well, Whiplash is that rare exception. I loved this movie, or as much as you're supposed to like a difficult story like this. From director/writer Damien Chazelle, 'Whiplash' is simply put, a gem. It won three Oscars -- including Simmons' Best Supporting Actor win -- and deserves all the recognition it is getting, especially that post-Oscar buzz. A ridiculously easy movie to recommend.
No point in starting anywhere else than just there, Mr. Simmons earning his first Oscar nomination and win. What a frightening performance. This is the teacher from Hell even if his ultimate goals or end-game is inspired in a way. It is a performance that's hard to look away from, even as difficult as it is to watch. His teaching methods involve belittling students, torturing them in emotional and physical fashion. It's a performance that reminded me of a drill sergeant, specifically R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Simmons' Fletcher pushes and pushes to limits that no school would ever allow, but you've got to suspend disbelief and just go with it. His screaming rants become almost comical in their horrifying natures as he uses slurs, racist taunts, comments on sexuality, their home lives. Anything and everything is on the table. If you want to be great, you have to work for it. You have to earn it.
It is a profoundly good performance, one that has overshadowed Miles Teller's part as Andrew. It isn't as big or showy as Simmons, but it is quite the memorable turn. And also, Simmons' part isn't truly big or showy. It doesn't feel like he's acting. It's just there. This is a human being who's being himself. As aggressive as it is, it feels REAL. Teller is similarly excellent. We see how far he's willing to push himself, right up to the brink of sanity to the point he almost can't take it anymore under his instructor's brutal tutelage. I've seen Teller in lighter movies -- Project X, 21 and Over -- but this is a talented actor with a future in drama. The horrifically uncomfortable chemistry between Teller's Andrew and Simmons' Fletcher is the crux of the movie, the blood and guts of it. Will Andrew snap? Will Fletcher go too far?
Simmons and Teller are in basically every scene with only a couple other supporting parts stepping to the forefront. Paul Reiser is very good as Andrew's Dad while Melissa Benoist plays Nicole, a student at Fordham that Andrew meets. Austin Stowell and Nate Lang play two other possible replacements in Fletcher's jazz studio band.
Where I struggle sometimes to put into words is a movie's style. 'Whiplash' has style to burn. It is filmed in poorly lit practice rooms full of rich lighting and warm, brown and black walls. Simmons' tight black t-shirts and black pants even add a touch of style to it all, another layer. The editing that won an Oscar is quick and keeps things going at an almost frenetic pace, but never overdone in the musical scenes. The camera movements add something to it, something palpable. An energy is there that adds to the ridiculously talented musicians we're hearing. I'm not musically inclined so I was never sure what sounded good/great/bad/awful, but these are fascinating scenes to watch.
Everything builds to an interesting climax, the story in general taking a surprising turn a little after the hour-mark. The more I thought about the finale, the more I liked it. At first, I wasn't a huge fan but think about it and it all comes together. A remarkable, musically-charged finale with a great final shot. An excellent movie. Must-see for Simmons, Teller and all that smooth jazz.
Whiplash (2014): ****/****