Of Mice and Men is a highly regarded, influential and controversial work of literature. Can any of the same things be said of the 1992, Palm d’Or nominated adaptation?
Of Mice and Men tells the story of George and Lennie, the latter being mentally challenged, as they come to a farm looking for work in the hopes of one day raising enough money to buy their own plot of land. Right from the get go it becomes clear that the film doesn’t concern itself with narrative but rather positions itself as a character study.
However, there are several problems with how that’s presented here. Most prominently there’s a general lack of character depth outside of our main duo, and even then there’s precious little substance. That’s not to say that George and Lennie don’t have any growth but the emotional resonance that the film shoots for repeatedly falls flat due to lack of characterization and completely on the nose foreshadowing, ensuring you know every beat before the film hits it (and just in case you miss it, the obnoxious score will cue you in on what you should be feeling, regardless of if you actually are). For the entire running time it simply fails to connect.
Gary Sinise in truth brings very little to the piece. His direction is very utilitarian, epitomized in the very by-the-book cinematography and editing. Besides some nice silhouetting in a handful of night time shots there’s very little directorial flair. One would think that he could bring more to what is his favorite book. On the bright side though, he does manage to showcase the non-glamorous manual labor of farm work effectively.
Sinise himself gives a fine performance as George Milton but it’s clear he’s never stretching himself beyond putting on a slightly Southern accent. In truth the cast is pretty good, but they practically pale in comparison to John Malkovich. In recent years it has become a running joke, courtesy of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, to “never go full retard” or, to put it in less offensive terms, never play a fully mentally handicapped individual. Malkovich however throws caution to the wind and completely owns the character, committing himself wholey to the role of Lennie. He’s easily the film’s best element and truly deserves a better film around him. It’s simply astounding that he didn’t garner any awards or nominations for his performance.
The side characters are little more than ciphers, caricatures with maybe one character trait to their name (if they even get a name). There’s the boss, who’s a hard-ass, his son who’s a walking Napoleon-complex, his wife who seems very unhappily married and craves attention, the friendly old guy and the black guy. There’s not much more to any of them, with the wife only getting an inkling of motivation right at the end of her screen-time and the old guy serving as an instrument of foreshadowing that are utilized to any meaningful degree.
By no means are any of their performances lacking, but they’re all in service of characters that are.
Final Verdict: Of Mice and Men is a film whose quality stems only from the source material and Malkovich’s committed performance, outside of which it brings very little to the table.