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How much happiness does it cost to be great?  Or, put another way, how much greatness does it cost to be happy?

In the middle of “Whiplash,” there’s a dinner table scene where the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller) feels like he isn’t getting the credit and accolades he deserves.  He’s the first chair drummer in the country’s best jazz ensemble, which means he’s one of the best drummers in the country. But his family would rather talk about his cousin’s football achievements, which are, in all frankness, pretty minor.  So he decides to put his cousin in his place. “It’s a Division III school,” he says.  “It’s not even Division II.”  His cousins responds, “you think it’s no big deal?  Come play with us.”  “Four words you will never hear from the NFL,” Andrew shoots back.  His uncle chimes in. “Andrew, do you have any friends?”  “No,” Andrew says, “I never had much use for them.”

You get the picture – our hero isn’t a very nice guy.  He’s conceited and self-absorbed.  He’s also a very, very good drummer.  “Whiplash” goes to great lengths to make sure that we understand that those two things are connected.  He’s a good drummer because he’s self-absorbed; he drums, for hours and hours a day, in his quixotic quest to be the next Buddy Rich.  And because he basically doesn’t do anything but drum, he’s self-absorbed and has no friends.  His drive to be great is so strong that he doesn’t care about being happy.  It’s no coincidence that he idolizes people like Charlie Parker, who were great at what they did, but died young and miserable.

Miles Teller is very good as Andrew, but J.K. Simmons is even better as his relentless conductor, Fletcher.  He teaches at a prestigious conservatory (I think it’s a stand-in for Julliard) and takes no BS from anybody. He’s unapologetically verbally abusive, believing that the great musicians will be able to take the heat, and the rest aren’t his concern. There are plenty of moments when Fletcher’s tirades are hard to watch, but Simmons keeps the performance laser-focused: there is no flailing or chewing scenery here.  In the one scene in which he hurls furniture, you don’t realize it even happened until it’s already over.  This is a character of supreme precision and control, and even his anger is a controlled fire, albeit raging.  Simmons won an Oscar for this performance, and it was deserved.

“Whiplash” sort of straddles the line between unorthodox teachers who inspire greatness in their pupils, and films about abusive mentors who damage and destroy their students.  Maybe it’s one and the same thing; maybe in order to fully realize potential, other parts of a person’s soul must be destroyed. That’s a sobering thought.  “The worst words in the human language,” says Fletcher, “are ‘good job.”  It’s enough to make you wonder if it mightn’t be better to let some potential go unrealized and encourage people to be happy, balanced, and well instead.  Which does the world need: more good art, or more good people?





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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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