For the past decade, Kevin Spacey, while continuing to work steadily in film and television, has also served as the artistic director of London’s Old Vic theater. His ambitious Bridge Project commissioned Sam Mendes, who’d helped him win an Oscar for American Beauty, to create a transatlantic company, bringing together British and American actors and techies in an attempt to find fertile common ground from the two countries’ different theatrical traditions. The Old Vic’s 2011 production of Richard III, directed by Mendes and starring Spacey in the title role, spent the better part of a year touring the world, from New York to Beijing to Qatar to Sydney; NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage serves as a chronicle of that experience, following the show as it bounces across the globe and observing the bonds that form among the cast and crew. It’s a thoroughly upbeat paean to the magic (and the hard work) of theater, with not so much of a hint of discord—of mild interest to aficionados and Spacey fans, but almost terminally bland.
Part of the problem is that first-time director Jeremy Whelehan, who appears to have a long association of some kind with Spacey (virtually all of his IMDB credits are Spacey-related), employs the fast-moving, superficial visual grammar of an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) featurette—at six times the usual length. The film is roughly 80 percent sound bites from interviews juxtaposed with quick snippets from rehearsals and performances; rarely does it delve into any particular aspect of the process, and never does it even vaguely approach the insight into the theater world achieved by any single scene in, say, Mike Leigh’s fictionalized portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy. Several people mention the bittersweet ephemerality of what they do—“You can’t reach up to the DVD shelf and pull [the memories] down,” Mendes notes—but this documentary so closely resembles a (bloated) DVD supplement that it seems fundamentally pointless on its own. Everyone’s perfectly sincere, but they’re all so full of praise for their colleagues and gratitude for the opportunity and sheer awe at the countries they’re visiting that the film inevitably feels self-promotional, even though NOW doesn’t actually have anything to promote.
Well, maybe tourism. It’s understandable that Whelehan wanted to capture some of the splendor of the various cities that hosted Richard III, and he also clearly means to provide a glimpse of how a theater company’s makeshift family bonds offstage as well as on. So there are scenes of the cast and crew walking along the Great Wall Of China, riding SUVs down sand dunes, taking a pleasure cruise on a yacht, etc. These sequences, which take up the remaining 20 percent of the movie, are just as interesting as other people’s vacation videos generally are, except that every now and then famous actor Kevin Spacey pops up in them. All in all, NOW seems like a fantastic gift for the folks who were personally involved in this production, like the personalized bobble-head dolls that Spacey gives everybody at the final performance. It’s a memory they can take down from the shelf. How much it has to offer anyone else is questionable.