The new coming-of-age film ARMAGEDDON TIME is an ambitious one, full of noble efforts, trying mightily to be profound and stirring, but ultimately, it just can’t get there. Filmmaker James Gray makes misstep after misstep, failing to be as smart as the film should be, or as likable. There is a racial B story to the film that should have been heartbreaking but Gray pulls those punches throughout. He’s hired award-winning actors to play most of the roles, but none of them create truly memorable characters. And the lessons that get doled out to the 12-year-old lead feel so rudimentary as to almost be insulting in their obviousness. Gray has made a very personal, biographical film about his childhood here, but it’s not nearly as clever, moving, or fascinating as he thinks it is. And in his stand-in, he’s created one of the more frustrating lead characters in such a film in quite some time.
Granted, one doesn’t expect kids to be the savviest of characters when presented in films. After all, coming of age means that such a story will be showing painful lessons that a child must endure to learn and grow. But here, the character of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is such an irritating child, he becomes difficult to relate to or sympathize with. He’s always acting up in school, cursing constantly, and burrowing under the skin of almost everyone he comes in contact with.
I kept waiting for Paul to become charming and puckish, perhaps, reminiscent of Peter Pan in his wiliness, but he never gets there. Instead, Gray shows more and more of just lousy behavior. Paul steals money from his mother’s hidden stash, insults her cooking with guests over, and drives his dad to hysteria. Paul does show some gumption when he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an eccentric black classmate whom others shun at school, but smoking reefer in the lavatory and stealing computers with him is no way to cultivate a friendship.
Gray seems to suggest too that because Paul is a ‘gifted’ artist in the story, he should be given a longer leash to misbehave. Yet, even there, the filmmaker doesn’t quite land the plane. The acclaimed drawing of a rocket shown that Paul drew hardly seems earth-shattering. And as natural a talent as Repeta seems to be, the young actor fails to make his character more interesting as the film goes on.
The director doesn’t quite get the right performances out of the rest of his cast either. Anne Hathaway is earnest and sly as the boy’s mom, but her New York accent comes and goes. Jeremy Strong plays Paul’s befuddled dad a bit too much on the strident side. Even the venerable Anthony Hopkins can’t quite find his character, mostly because Gray has written the part as a preachy sage rather than a lovable mensch of a Jewish grandfather.
Where Gray falls the shortest is with the character of Johnny. He short-shrifts his screen time when he should have been the second most important person in the story. Gray all but ignores any examination of Johnny’s homelife, too, failing to explain how the youth came to be so clever or so bitter. Webb is adequate in the role, but he’s simply not given enough to do.
The production values are excellent, and the period costumes never feel too showy. Still, Gray’s potshots at presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and tycoon Fred Trump in the film come off as too heavy-handed. The title, by the way, refers to the 1980 fear that Reagan would start WWIII with all of his tough talk about the Soviet Union. Of course, Gray intends the title to also wink at Paul’s innocence getting blown to smithereens as it does by the end of the story. Indeed, the kid’s life is nothing if not dramatic. Too bad I lost interest in his shenanigans an hour in.