by Tony Dayoub
A documentary taking a hard look at a fascinating subject like actor Nick Nolte (Affliction) would seem to be a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, Nick Nolte: No Exit is a film at war with itself. Director Tom Thurman (John Ford Goes to War) has all the elements in place to create what could be an intriguing analysis of the immensely talented actor and his inconsistent body of work. He has the subject's wholehearted participation, unafraid to reveal vulnerability in this warts-and-all take on his career; interviews with many of his closest colleagues, including Rosanna Arquette, Jacqueline Bisset, Powers Boothe, and Alan Rudolph; anecdotes both personal and professional which make the film insistently watchable. It's Thurman's stubborn reliance on a misguided framing device that mars the movie.
Thurman's approach hinges on an odd conceit that must have sounded good on paper, Nick Nolte interviewing himself. The actual execution is amateurish at best. He cuts between a well-kempt Nolte dressed in a Panama-style white hat and leisure suit asking hard questions, and a raggedy (maybe even intoxicated) Nolte slouching in front of an old-style Telecine flatbed responding defiantly to those questions. The clean-cut Nolte poses difficult queries concerning the circumstances behind the now infamous mugshot; the actor's penchant for taking his Method-style to such an extreme it often alienates his co-workers; and whether he believes he has problems with addiction. The red-faced disheveled Nolte answers each question with no trace of hypocrisy or obfuscation, save for moments in which he rails against journalists who have tarnished his reputation in order to file a good story.
The problem is that this back and forth is a bit of a performance in and of itself. It would seem to serve as an appropriate metaphor for the bifurcated personality Thurman is examining. Instead, it becomes a tiresome device that distracts and detracts from the exploration being conducted in a way not unlike the "Gollum effect" used in the climax of The Two Towers. Do you realize what it takes for a documentary to get this writer thinking of a Lord of the Rings flick? The absence of any of Nolte's film clips is glaring, especially when an actor, critic or director is pointedly referring to a particular scene in which he worked with the star. Every time an interesting take on the actor is proffered by someone like Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) or Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder) the film cuts away to return to the supremely ridiculous sight of Nolte interviewing himself... in the second person.
No, the silly theatrical device framing Nick Nolte: No Exit is actually analogous to the frustration versus fascination which arises from watching a documentary that comes so close to illuminating its subject, yet still misses the mark. Tom Thurman took a gamble in his framing of the subject. It's too bad his directorial ego won't let him accept how poorly the gamble fails to pay off.
Nick Nolte: No Exit is currently playing exclusively on demand on the brand new Sundance Selects VOD platform, available nationwide.