Prior to its release, "Max" drew censure from Jewish groups that were concerned its history-based flight of speculation would "humanize" Adolf Hitler. Those complaints died down when the movie saw the light of a projector, and many of the naysayers praised its usefulness. Behind those outward professions of admiration, I think, was relieved dismissal: This intermittently amusing stunt of a movie isn't capable of "humanizing" anyone, and rather does little more than play an innocuous game of fill-in-the-blanks with a tragic past.
In broad, heavy-handed moves, the film traces the uneasy friendship of two men in post-World War I Germany. One is art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack), a disabled Semitic veteran seeking salvation through aesthetics in a turbulent social milieu. The other is a fellow soldier and struggling artist named ... Adolf Hitler. Dummm-da-DUM-dum!
That's exactly the hyper-ominous timbre "Max" maintains through its 106 minutes, in which (the fictional) Rothman tries to guide the incipient dictator (Noah Taylor) toward an artistic epiphany as the winds of Nazism blow him ever closer to his despotic destiny. Only an audience that finds TV miniseries too challenging would believe that old 'Dolf's path from frustrated painter to architect of the Third Reich was as linear as it's been depicted here. (A particularly bizarre notion: That the future FŸhrer's beer-hall diatribes were delivered at roughly the same amplitude as his later open-air addresses. And you thought singing waiters were intrusive.)
Still, there are familiar but valid lessons to be learned as Hitler is recruited into the ranks of a dangerously disenfranchised subculture. And Taylor makes such scenes come alive with his lip-smacking character turn. His Hitler is a memorably moldy little rat, one who looks a lot like the late Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators (which even makes sense in a weird, cross-textual sorta way).
Therein lies the rub. Though the movie is named after Cusack's character, it's just not his film. Even those of us who have appreciated a good chunk of the actor's work have to recognize that Lloyd Dobler from "Say Anything" just can't hold his own in a frame with the 20th century's greatest monster. Then again, "see it for its Hitler" is just the sort of cut line of which "Max" would heartily approve.