"Becoming Jane" Cast:
Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen
James McAvoy as Tom Lefroy
Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen
James Cromwell as Rev Austen
Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham
Joe Anderson as Henry Austen
Lucy Cohu as Eliza De Feuillide
Laurence Fox as Mr. Wisley
Ian Richardson as Judge Langlois
Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra Austen
Leo Bill as John Warren
Jessica Ashworth as Lucy Lefroy
Eleanor Methven as Mrs. Lefroy
Michael James Ford as Mr. Lefroy
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Robert Fowle
"Becoming Jane" directed by Julian Jarrold
"El Cantante" Cast:
Marc Anthony as Héctor Lavoe
Jennifer Lopez as Puchi
John Ortiz as Willie Colón
Christopher Becerra as Tito
Michael Caputo as Salsa Dancer
Federico Castelluccio as Jerry Masucci
Bernard Hernandez as Tito
Vincent Laresca as Ralph Mercado
Deirdre Lorenz as Willie's Girl
Andrea Navedo as Puchi's sister
Jerry Perez as Salsa Dancer
Manny Perez as Eddie
Nelson Vasquez as Johnny Pacheco
"El Cantante" directed by Leon Ichaso
This double review may as well be subtitled "When Biopics With Potential Go Wrong" because here are two examples of the genre that take well-known and beloved personalities, use tried-and-true formulas to tell their stories, and fall just short of working as entertaining and informative films. Granted, it's not particularly fair to compare two movies featuring central characters as different as English author Jane Austen and salsa singer Héctor Lavoe, but there's something to learn from how both movies try to jump on the biopic bandwagon with both feet and wind up missing the mark.
The problem with biopics is that they're so common that it feels like we've already seen it before even if they do focus on characters who haven't been the subject of previous movies. In the case of "Becoming Jane," it follows in the shadow of Renée Zellweger's portrayal of Beatrix Potter in the recent "Miss Potter" with Anne Hathaway also playing a beloved British author. "El Cantante" stumbles in the wake of better musical biopics like "Walk the Line" and "Ray" even if Héctor Lavoe has very little in common with Johnny Cash and Ray Charles beyond the fact that he was a successful singer in his genre of music. In both cases, the films seem like they were labors of love, made more to satisfy the desires of its producers than any real demand, but both films have solid casts and clearly, much time and research went into creating the stories.
Héctor Lavoe was an amazing entertainer and singer Marc Anthony really captures the energy he exuded on stage, which makes "El Cantante" far more entertaining as a film in terms of following Lavoe's success in conjunction with the origins of salsa music. By comparison, "Becoming Jane" is a much better-looking and refined film probably more due its setting and nature than anything else, and director Julian Jarold ("Kinky Boots") takes a far more linear approach to the storytelling, filming it much like other period pieces based on Austen's books. "El Cantante" director Leon Ichaso is a bit more adventurous in his approach, using different styles of camerawork and filming to make it feel more like a contemporary music video. That said, this is also where "Cantante" begins to stumble as Ichaso goes too far in trying to be artsy and stylish, and it tends to be distracting since it takes away from the storytelling.
Both the female leads are annoying at times, which is worse for "Becoming Jane" because it's about Hathaway's character, but Jennifer Lopez's Puchi plays just as large a part in the Lavoe biopic, as it's told from the viewpoint of the singer's overbearing wife with Lopez (the film's producer) recreating a series of interviews done with Puchi after Héctor's death from AIDS. For the most part, we've seen this movie far too many times before, the story of a talented musician who broke new ground in their particular genre and whose career is cut short by excess and drugs. "Ray" and "Walk the Line" not only sets the tone for the movie but probably allowed it to get financed. The best moments in "El Cantante" explore the relationship between Lavoe and his long-time friend and musical collaborator Willie Colón as played by John Ortiz in a breakout role, but much of it's marred by the extraneous number of scenes that show Héctor and Puchi squabbling. It's as if the film's producer Jennifer Lopez didn't learn a thing from "Gigli" by playing a married couple with her actual husband. The movie also seems overly long and one can cut out half the dramatic moments and get more out of the well-produced musical numbers.
"Becoming Jane" starts off as a silly romantic comedy with Hathaway's Austen "meeting cute" with James McAvoy's Tom Lefroy, the charming Irishman who got away, but it quickly starts to get serious and depressing as Lefroy continually appears then disappears from Austen's life as she's unable to commit to him with the pressures of her family to marry into money. The film proceeds to sample liberally from all of Austen's novels in order to create some sort of story. Because of this, it's hard not to think that we've already seen it before, most recently in the far superior adaptation of Austen's "Pride & Prejudice." Since so much of this movie is taken directly from Austen's works, it's hard to justify how much of this is factual and not just assembled for the sake of those who'll rush out to see any period movie, let alone any movie based on her novels. At least the venerable Maggie Smith has a number of amusing scenes (mirroring the similar character Judi Dench played in "Pride") although for the most part, this is a painful experience for anyone who gets easily annoyed by the formulaic nature of Austen's writing, because this movie does very little to break that pattern, being equally slow, dry and pretentious, yet not nearly as well written.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of Héctor Lavoe and Jane Austen might be forgiving of the flaws in these rote formula biopics that rarely strive for authenticity, but there's very little in either movie to convince someone to go out and buy one of Lavoe's records or pick up one of Austen's books to learn more about them, which should be the main reason to honor someone with a biopic. At least "El Cantante" has Lavoe's songs and music to fall back on, while "Becoming Jane" is little more than a generic period drama with far too much talking.
Both movies open in select cities on Friday.