Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected is a true conundrum. A self-indulgent mess that's virtually unwatchable at times, it also features a genuinely spectacular performance by Jeff Goldblum that demands to be seen. Released late last year in an attempt to generate some awards-season traction, it finally plays in the Cleveland area this weekend.
Based on Yoram Kaniuk's acclaimed 1968 novel about Holocaust survivor Adam Stein (Goldblum), Schrader's movie is set principally in a concentration camp and a mental institution in the middle of Israel's Negev Desert. Schrader and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid opted to shoot the camp scenes in black and white and the asylum scenes in color. Like too much of Adam Resurrected, it's an obvious artistic choice that feels both needlessly showy and fatally literal/pretentious under the circumstances.
The flashbacks to 1930s Berlin in which Adam is a celebrated circus performer who shamelessly toadies before Nazi brass are the most compelling parts of the film. It's during Adam's days and nights in the celebrity limelight that he first makes the acquaintance of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe in a performance that veers uncomfortably into Hogan's Heroes territory), who'll ultimately become his savior and the source of his eternal damnation. After he's shipped to Stellring concentration camp, Klein takes Adam under his wing as his (literal) pet dog.
The memory of that humiliating degradation and the guilt he experiences for having survived when every member of his family was gassed eventually leads ex-clown Adam to the asylum. Adam Resurrected never finds a consistent tone. It jumps schizophrenically from gallows humor to abject tragedy, sometimes within the same scene. Kaniuk's book mixed disparate moods with finesse, but that type of authorial discipline seems beyond Schrader's grasp. And the polyglot cast results in a cacophony of dueling accents. Goldblum, however, is sensational. Too bad the rest of the movie isn't up to his exacting standards.