In his 1886 novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Count Leo Tolstoy describes his protagonist's life as having been "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." He then goes on to recount how Ivan, who has discovered he is dying of cancer, is suddenly forced to examine the larger questions of life, questions that he has never even considered before.
In "Ivans xtc." (read: "Ivan's Ecstasy"), which is loosely based on the Tolstoy story, the Ivan in question is Ivan Beckman, an A-list Hollywood agent who works for one of the biggest agencies in town. He is a drunk, a drug user, a womanizer, a liar and a plotter of immoral deeds. When we meet him, however, we can't help but be charmed by him. He's like an overgrown schoolboy who lives by the credo of Simon Grey's "Butley": "Trouble for you, fun for me."
We first see Ivan at his cutthroat job, trading in the struggling career of a young writer/director for the established career of Don West (Peter Weller), a nasty piece of work who also happens (not coincidentally) to be one of the hottest actors in town.
We also watch Ivan at play, mostly with his ambitious and scheming girlfriend (played by producer and co-writer Lisa Enos), and when she's not around, with a trio of high-priced hookers who serve as currency in the omnipresent world of sex and drugs.
And then (in true Russian fashion), Ivan starts coughing up blood. He's dying, and we know it, and it's up to him to make sense of the time he has left.
It would be nice to say that Ivan realizes the tragedy of his empty life and seeks redemption before it is too late, but this is too painful and honest a film for that. The best he can do is reach out a hand for friendship during his final days, only to find that he is ultimately, permanently alone. He even rejects religion, scrawling out a crude blasphemy when a rabbi comes to visit him in the hospital.
This cynical film paints a hugely unflattering portrait of life in Hollywood's fast lane. I have no way of knowing exactly how much is exaggeration, but I've got a creepy feeling that the film is closer to the mark than I want to believe.
"Ivans xtc." is directed by Bernard Rose ("Paperhouse," "Immortal Beloved"), who has had his share of problems with Hollywood over the years (especially with his severely edited "Anna Karenina"). It stars Danny Huston (son of John), who favors a young Orson Welles as he staggers the last mile from penthouse to hospital room.
It is an Orson Welles movie, in fact, that comes to mind as we watch Ivan pass on. Like in "The Magnificent Ambersons," the sense is that Ivan Beckman has "gotten his comeuppance."
Directed by Bernard Rose; produced by Lisa Enos; written by Rose, Enos; based on the novel "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," by Leo Tolstoy; photographed by Rose and Ron Forsythe. An Artistic License Film; opens Friday at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-9075. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (sex, nudity, drugs, strong language).
Ivan Beckman -- Danny Huston
Don West -- Peter Weller
Charlotte White -- Lisa Enos
Danny McTeague -- James Merendino