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Max ***

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

The calm before the storm

(Courtesy of The Oakland Tribune)

Starring: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski. Rated: R.

Menno Meyjes' Max has been condemned by the Jewish Defense League, the Anti-Defamation League and media pundits like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who branded the film a cynical exploitation, because it depicts Adolf Hitler as a young, struggling artist, not the genocidal tyrant responsible for the deaths of, among others, six million Jews. The film even has the audacity to suggest that Hitler's bloody reign as the leader of Nazi Germany might have been avoided, if only he'd been able to sell a painting.

A plausible premise? We'll never know. But critics who have protested the release of Max because of its unconventional portrayal of the most controversial figure of the 20th century are missing the point.

Hitler was not a monster, at least not in the sense that most people would like to imagine. He was a strangely magnetic figure whose cold charisma was most evident in his vile, anti-Semitic rants, and though his actions were horrific, he was a man nonetheless. To dismiss him as a one-dimensional bogeyman, bereft of all human qualities, might be reassuring to those who would like to believe that no man could ever orchestrate a second coming of the Holocaust, but it would be a copout.

As depicted in Max by English-born actor Noah Taylor, star of 1991's brilliant Flirting, Hitler is a brooding, self-pitying creep whose political aspirations mean less to him than his burning desire for artistic success. Despite his humorless self-importance and the anti-Semitic rhetoric he spews in the streets of post-World War I Munich, the young corporal strikes up an improbable friendship with Max Rothman (Cusack), a Jewish art dealer and fellow war veteran.

Hitler is torn between rival influences, both of whom encourage him to channel his passion into something larger than himself. Rothman wants him to find his voice as an artist, to pour his anger and frustration onto canvas; Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen) is impressed by Hitler's skills as an orator and urges him to focus his energy on becoming the public face of the up-and-coming National Socialist Party.

Although he is repulsed by Rothman's drinking and philandering -- to say nothing of his religion -- Hitler wants to impress his mentor. Indeed, he views art as his ticket out of the Nazi party, and reluctantly accepts Rothman as a friend with a shrewd eye for talent. Mayr monitors their friendship, and when Hitler ultimately chooses art over politics, the cold-blooded captain takes action.

Max tells the story of Hitler's relationship with the affable art dealer, and while the pall of inevitable tragedy hangs over the film, there is humor, too, with the future Fuhrer playing the ultimate straight man to Cusack, whose character is infused with more than a touch of Woody Allen. If anything, Max is a dark comedy, and it's probably the only movie that will ever feature a line like, "Come on, Hitler, I'll buy you a lemonade."

Taylor and Cusack shine in their respective roles, making this odd couple compelling and surprisingly believable. Wisely, Taylor plays Hitler as something more than a cartoonish wretch: He rants and he raves, and his scowl suggests the murderous fury within, but there are brief moments when hints of tenderness and vulnerability reveal themselves through the hatefulness.

Yet it is Cusack who carries the film. Much has been made of his tireless crusade to raise money for Max, which was shunned by most studios and potential backers because of its subject. (After an 18-month search for investors, he convinced London-based Pathe International to chip in nearly $10 million for the project, and chose to take no salary for his work.) With an endearing performance that hits all the right notes, whether comic or profoundly sad, he justifies entirely his stubborn passion. -- Rossiter Drake

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