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De Palma, a new documentary, is insightful, entertaining, and far too thorough

The director has made nearly 30 films, some good and some bad. They all get roughly equal time here.

De Palma
Brian De Palma (right) discusses Mission: Impossible with star Tom Cruise.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Brian De Palma has seen it all.



A film director since the late 1960s, he’s been responsible for big hits (Carrie, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible). He's been responsible for cult sensations (Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise). He’s even been responsible for a few massive flops (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars).

He came up in a group of great 1970s directors, counting George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg among his friends. But where those directors all went on to become legends, De Palma is beloved by some, reviled by others, and mostly unknown to the general public.

De Palma, a new 107-minute documentary about the man, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, aims to change that fact by putting him squarely in focus. The director discusses his entire body of work, from the short films he made as a student all the way up through his late-career passion projects, and Baumbach and Paltrow edit the film so that it becomes one long monologue.

The documentary’s commitment to being thorough is admirable. But that urge to be comprehensive is also how De Palma shoots itself in the foot.

De Palma covers everything. Everything.

De Palma has directed nearly 30 films over the course of his decades-long career. And since Baumbach and Paltrow want to make sure they find time for all of them — including those De Palma is obviously disconnected from or not that interested in, like his mid-’80s comedy Wise Guys — they end up truncating some interesting discussions in the name of checking every last one off the list.

Occasionally De Palma will start a tangent about how he sees directors, fundamentally, as voyeurs, or how he thinks movie critics are driven more by the tastes of their time and aren’t great arbiters of actual quality, only for Baumbach and Paltrow to force the movie back into dissecting every single one of his films.

And to be sure, De Palma has worthwhile things to say about most of them. His account of Mission: Impossible includes the time he essentially forced star Tom Cruise to choose between De Palma and screenwriter Robert Towne over whether the climax of the film would be an action spectacular or a small-scale character scene.

He also talks about how lots of people protested the violence against women in his 1984 film Body Double by citing a scene where a murderer runs a woman through with a giant drill — but explains that he only picked such a big drill because he needed it to go through the floor beneath her body. (De Palma follows this up with a great quote about how sometimes, as a director, you can think something is logical only to realize the audience is horrified by it.)

And he’s got some great thoughts on the challenges directors face in working with projects heavily designed inside of computers, connected to the aforementioned bomb Mission to Mars.

This framework gives the movie a certain sense of propulsive momentum — you never wonder where it's going, especially if you’re already aware of at least some of the films De Palma made — but it also means the director sometimes skips past or glosses over certain films or topics.

The movie also has a weird fixation on the idea that the biggest box office hits are also the movies that deserve the most discussion, and adjusts their screen time accordingly. Untouchables is a fine film, but I’m not sure it requires as much analysis as some of De Palma’s perhaps lesser-known films, and several of his more recent projects (particularly the intriguing but flawed 2007 Iraq War drama Redacted) are underserved in the end, as if Baumbach and Paltrow realized they were approaching a stopping point.

Ultimately, neither De Palma nor De Palma advances any argument beyond, "This is Brian De Palma." There are hints of one here and there, but the movie itself can’t seem to get out of its own way.

As an introduction to a vital film talent, De Palma is well worth seeing. But as a documentary that delivers anything more than the expected highlights, it leaves something to be desired.