Jude Law, left, and Richard E. Grant star in "Dom Hemingway."
Jude Law, left, and Richard E. Grant star in "Dom Hemingway." (Nick Wall / Fox Searchlight)

No hint of the debonair playboy that earned Jude Law his first Oscar nomination for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is found in the banged-up, bloated safecracker on the loose in "Dom Hemingway," a new black comedy that liberates the actor in strangely fascinating and weirdly repellent ways.

Nary a trace of the wry Dr. Watson from "Sherlock Holmes" is in evidence. None of "Cold Mountain's" good-soldier sense of honor, which brought Law's second Oscar nomination, surfaces. Even his ultimate cad "Alfie" seems a sweetheart next to Dom.


Law has embraced the lawless Dom so completely, disappeared so deeply, that it can be disconcerting to witness the bruising altercations and poetically perverse soliloquies that dominate this immoral morality play. Almost every line is delivered with such overwrought bombast, just inches at times from the camera, you may feel a need to dodge the spittle.

Love Dom or hate him — and most will be inclined toward both — the performance is in full throttle constantly, and full monty briefly. The actor is clearly having the time of his life being bad to the bone.

I wish the film were more fun for the rest of us.

The bad teeth, the broken nose, the extra 20 or so pounds are jarring. But it is what Law does with Dom that is at the core of the film's double-edged sword.

Take the opening scene where we get the, ahem, full measure of the man.

It is in the prison where the sorry sod has spent the last 12 long years for not ratting out his boss. Dom has curried his rage, inflated his ego along with his belly, and plotted his revenge for all that lost time. His wife divorced him then died, his daughter's estranged, his bank account's dry. But that's not the subject of his effusive, extensive rant. What we get is a colorful, caustic ode to his most majestic private part, which at the moment is being, how shall I put this, manhandled.

Did I mention, Dom can be insufferable?

Richard Shepard, "Dom's" creator, writer and director, has made a career of mucking around in various subversive stories, starting with his first feature, 1991's "The Linguini Incident." "The Matador," 2006's wicked tale of a hit man on the lam starring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear as his reluctant sidekick, remains Shepard's most enjoyable.

"Dom Hemingway," while not nearly as gratifying, is nevertheless the director's most fully realized film. Between Law's performance and Shepard's script, which brims with explicit and expressive dialogue, the movie is remarkable for its ability to exhaust, irritate and also entertain.

Back to that British prison. Just beyond the bars and the initial ignominy, stands Dickie, Dom's old partner in crime and possibly his only friend. Portrayed by an excellently under-expressive Richard E. Grant, Dickie appears to be channeling an "Easy Rider"-era Peter Fonda, complete with shoulder-length hair, tinted glasses and flowered shirts. He's in a constant meditative state, which helps temper Dom's intensity — slightly. Dickie is also the film's voice of reason.

Dom, meanwhile, sports a tailored suit decades out of date and decidedly too tight. Not surprisingly he tends to leave serious wreckage in his wake, and that trail of destruction is what the film follows.

It will lead Dom and Dickie to a posh estate in the South of France, where Dom intends to collect from the boss he protected all those years, a very polished Demián Bichir as Mr. Fontaine. A series of bad choices and female distractions follow, until Dom makes his way back to his estranged daughter, Evelyn.


Played by Emilia Clarke, looking nothing like the dragon princess of "Game of Thrones," Evelyn has both the cynicism and softness of someone raised with disappointments. Evelyn's indie rocker performance by Clarke is one of "Dom Hemingway's" most hauntingly sensitive moments. It is wonderful, yet completely out of character for the film, though Dom has a tendency to turn to mush around Evelyn too.

More typically, a sense of the overwrought saturates the proceedings with an assist from director of photography Giles Nuttgens, production designer Laurence Dorman and costume designer Julian Day. The use of artist Jill Greenberg's massive monkey portraits — surreal, visceral, scary, silent in their contemplation — as the backdrop for one particularly explosive scene at Fontaine's estate exemplifies the sort of Pop-art sensibilities that, like Dom, jangle the nerves.

Dom is dealt a bad hand at every turn, but it is always a toss-up as to where the blame lies and how much the man is the master — or saboteur — of his fate. As Dom struggles toward decency and his daughter, Evelyn is left deciding whether to forgive him.

That is the question for us as well. There is something worthy inside "Dom Hemingway" that keeps trying to surface, but it is buried so deeply under distracting excesses that it makes the movie hard to forgive, harder still to love.


'Dom Hemingway'

MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles